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The Grand Theatre is presenting ‘What the Butler Saw!’ from the pen of radical ’60s and iconic playwright, Joe Orton. David Simper travelled down to town to see how this play holds up after nearly 60 years.

I had last seen a Joe Orton play at the Coventry Belgrade Theatre at the end of the ’90s, ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’, which I’d enjoyed and found intriguing. Therefore I was keen to catch this play at the Grand Theatre as a follow up, after two decades. Despite this and reading an introduction to the play, I was not quite sure what to expect from a play billed as a manic farce.

The set was uncurtained and was decorated in strong although not primary colours, mannequins and 60s period furniture giving a psychedelic atmosphere.

The action commenced with a lecherous male psychiatrist making a crude attempt at seducing a new, young female secretary, which results in her hiding naked behind a curtain when the man’s wife returns unexpectedly, apparently having departed her lesbian support group, even though she herself is not gay. Other characters cascade onto the stage, all clearly with problems; a priapic page boy who frankly admits to rape and child abuse and a government inspector who interprets any behaviour as madness and tries to section most of the other cast members in a frenzy of distorted Freudianism. There is a plot, but it rapidly descends into chaos and it’s quickly difficult to remember why various cast members are acting the way they are, which includes undressing, dressing and cross-dressing.

Amorality, selfishness and ambition are all strong themes. The characters lie and twist with abandon, sometimes with unselfish motives, most times not. I found myself rooting for Dr Prentice before remembering that he was largely in his predicament because he’d tried to abuse a young woman.

Into the chaos comes a policeman who is searching for a lost part of a statue of Winston Churchhill, but is drawn into what becomes a deranged and violent situation. Why two automatic pistols are available in a psychiatrist’s office is never explained.

My son had accompanied me to this play and was quickly squirming at the jokes and the general mayhem. He left early to get the bus home unable to deal with what he was seeing. However, we agree that this play must have had a dramatic effect on its original audiences in the ’60s: it is in your face and faces people with the grim reality of human behaviour and lifestyles.

Joe Orton was a working class playwright and gay. He was murdered in 1967, the same year of the Sexual Offences Act, which means that he lived hs entire life with his sexuality effectively defined as not only perverted but illegal. I’m always shy of interpreting the under-themes of plays, I’m simply not good enough, but I note that despite the bizarre behaviour, all the characters here are straight, and yet they do such horrible things. Only the secretary and the policeman come out with any credit. Is Orton holding a mirror up to society and saying, ‘You criticise and persecute me?’

This may be so, but I’m not happy about rape apparently being normalised and characters flaunting it, even in a critical context.

The play ends with what must qualify as one of the most unpleasant and bizarre reveal scenes ever; somehow it was amusing, but I’m not sure how that can be rationalised. And we find out what’s in the cardboard box.

Usually when I watch a play, at the start I register that the characters are acting and projecting and then I forget this and settle into the production, but that didn’t happen this time with things feeling rather forced. However, the dialogue is razor sharp and incessant, often needing to be delivered at breakneck speed and requiring concentration from the audience, so heaven knows what it’s like to learn and deliver this stuff (I have never aspired to act, because I know I could never learn lines).

Do take the time to attend this production, which is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, including a previous Joe Orton play. The production runs until 18th May 2024, book your tickets on the Grand Theatre website.

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    I have worked in the housing and transport professions for several local authorities, specialising in policy, strategy preparation and bid writing. Having always had an interest in film, the visual arts in general, theatre, music and lterature, I thought it would be good to combine the writing experience with these interests to contribute to altBlackpool. In addition to writing, my hobbies include watercolour and pastel painting, photography, woodwork, cycling and vegetable gardening.

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