Theatre reviews: What The Butler Saw | Lewis Capaldi Goes Tropical | The Drifters Girl

Joe Orton’s farce What The Butler Saw can still raise a laugh – and more than a frisson of discomfort – over half a century after it was first performed, writes Susan Mansfield

What The Butler Saw, Perth Theatre ****

The Drifters Girl, Edinburgh Playhouse ***

Lewis Capaldi Goes Tropical, Oran Mor ***

John Dorney as Dr Prentice and Alana Jackson as Geraldine Barclay in What The Butler Saw PIC: Sheila BurnettJohn Dorney as Dr Prentice and Alana Jackson as Geraldine Barclay in What The Butler Saw PIC: Sheila Burnett
John Dorney as Dr Prentice and Alana Jackson as Geraldine Barclay in What The Butler Saw PIC: Sheila Burnett

A play which set out to shock its audiences in 1969 is going to land differently in 2024. But how differently? Joe Orton’s fierce, angry, smutty final play What The Butler Saw takes a scatter-gun approach to any number of sacred cows: psychiatry, government officials, the educated classes, gender, Winston Churchill and plenty more.

In this tightly structured farce, psychiatrist Dr Prentice is trying to recruit a new secretary, but seems more intent on getting the candidate, Miss Barclay, naked on his couch. Meanwhile, his wife is being blackmailed by a hotel bell-hop for her own misdemeamours and wants him to get the job. But this is little more than the opening scenario for a descent into a mayhem of mistaken identity, increasingly ludicrous cover-ups and a lot of people running around in their underwear.

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Farce is not easy to stage, and London Classic Theatre’s touring production directed by Michael Cabot is impressively tight, even on the night I saw it when the illness of a cast member meant Scottish actor Ronan Doyle was called upon to do a heroic stand-in at a few hours’ notice.

John Dorney is excellent as the harried, amoral Dr Prentice, Jack Lord chilling as Dr Rance and Alana Jackson deserves particular commendation as Geraldine Barclay, the innocent who tries to speak up for “truth” but is quickly drowned out by the general madness. Bek Palmer’s intriguing set draws on Terry Gilliam’s cartoons and surrealist paintings; and Orton’s polished lines still raise a laugh, and more than a frisson of discomfort.

Carly Mercedes Dyers as Faye Treadwell in The Drifters GirlCarly Mercedes Dyers as Faye Treadwell in The Drifters Girl
Carly Mercedes Dyers as Faye Treadwell in The Drifters Girl

A thread of farce runs through Raymond Wilson’s play, Lewis Capaldi Goes Tropical, directed by Fiona Mackinnon for A Play, A Pie and A Pint. Jack (George Docherty) is holed up in a hotel room at Glasgow Airport with an okapi called Sinead O’Connor which he plans to sell to Lewis Capaldi.

His nephew Rob (Joshua Haynes) and Rob’s partner Erin (Rebekah Lumsden) have had enough of Jack’s scams, but Rob is a songwriter, and won’t pass up a chance of meeting the legend. As they wait for Capaldi, a darker thread emerges: Jack is Rob’s no-good father, and the time has come to decide whether he is worth one last chance.

Haynes and Lumsden capture adeptly the voices of working-class Clydebank, while Docherty does his best with an Irish accent which might not be strictly necessary. While there are some laughs, at heart, this is a family story with no easy resolution.

In the world of jukebox musicals, The Drifters Girl aims higher than most, telling the story of the band’s manager, Faye Treadwell (Carly Mercedes Dyer), an African-American woman making her way in a man’s world. While the legendary R&B vocal group produce hit after hit, Treadwell – first with her husband, George, then alone after his death in 1967 – faces legal battles and issues with the constantly changing line-up, not to mention endemic racism and sexism.

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In the show, written by Ed Curtis in consultation with Treadwell’s daughter Tina, she tells the story to her daughter (Jayday Bell-Ricketts), and Drifters’ hits like Saturday Night at the Movies and Save the Last Dance for Me are performed by a strong quartet of Miles Anthony Daley, Ashford Campbell, Tarik Frimpong and Daniel Haswell.

While the harmonies and dance routines in Jonathan Church’s production are flawless, the most powerful moments come when the songs are put to specific purposes: a beautiful, defiant version of Stand By Me, sung by Treadwell after learning of her husband’s death; a moving rendition of In the Land of Make Believe sung by troubled frontman Rudy Lewis.

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Beginning in the 1950s and finishing when the band played for Bill Clinton at the White House in 1993, the show covers so much ground there is little time for depth. As a night out, it’s never less than enjoyable, but moments of emotional connection are fewer than one would hope for.

All three shows run until 4 May