What The Butler Saw

Written by Joe Orton

Thurs 19th - Sat 21st November & Tues 24th - Sat 28th November 2009

Directed by Mark Wakeman

It's the swinging sixties and Dr. Prentice wants to 'let it all hang out', but unfortunately his wife won't let him. Undaunted, he decides to make a play for his new young secretary which begins a wild adventure of confusion, lies, misunderstanding, cross-dressing and death-by-the-gas-board.

Orton uses the newly found freedoms of the decade to take a surreal look at the world around him, fusing witty word-play with a lunatic zeal that wouldn't be out of place in 'Monty Python'. Rightly regarded as one of the funniest plays ever written, the play was first performed after Orton's tragic death in 1969; the same year that Bench Theatre was formed.

AuthorJoe Orton

Joe Orton (1933 - 1967)

Joe Orton was born in Leicester and his childhood was not a particularly happy one. Although not especially poverty stricken, his childhood could nevertheless be described as drab, uninspiring and violent. A clever child, young Joe passed the 11+ exam to go to grammar school but persistent ill health meant that his schooling was sporadic and he failed his exams. Orton set his sights on attending RADA after enjoying his experience on-stage in amateur dramatics. At the age of 18, he joined the Academy where he met Kenneth Halliwell, the man who was to become his friend, his collaborator, his lover and tragically, his murderer.

Orton and Halliwell wrote a number of unsuccessful works together but achieved bizarre notoriety in 1962 when they were convicted and imprisoned for the seemingly innocuous crime of defacing library books. The court passed down a harsh, 6-month sentence for what was ostensibly a prank. However, in an age where homosexuality was still illegal, the fact that the prank included pasting semi-erotic pictures on to covers of what they considered to be 'very dull' books probably influenced the judiciary. Orton later commented that they had been persecuted harshly because they had been discovered to be gay men openly living together.

While for Halliwell, prison was a soul-destroying experience, for Orton, it seemed to be the making of the playwright in him. In his own words, "I tried writing before I went into the nick...but it was no good. Being in the nick brought detachment to my writing...suddenly it worked."

After a number of unsuccessful minor works, Entertaining Mr Sloane was Orton's first major script but the play received mixed response when it opened in 1963. In later venues however, it was voted Best New British Play by Variety's London Critics, moved to Broadway and Orton had his first taste of major success.

In 1966, Orton began again to write a diary (something he had started earlier in life). These later chapters, whilst being a frank and open account of his life, are also well-crafted literary works. They record, among other things the difficulties he experienced in his relationship with Halliwell, but give no clue that the nature of his death at the age of 34, could have been foreseen. The facts of the matter are that in August 1967, Halliwell killed him by repeatedly hitting him about the head with a hammer. Halliwell then took his own life with an overdose and 2 lives and a promising career were brought to an untimely end.

Joe Orton's published work consists of three stage plays, four short radio/TV plays, a screenplay and a novel.

PlayWhat The Butler Saw

'What the Butler Saw', was Joe Orton's final play. Completed in July 1967 (less than a month before his death) it was first staged in March 1969 (nearly 2 years later) which was also the year that Bench Theatre was formed. Audiences were both shocked and appalled at the overt sexual references and lack of respect for authority and morality. Indeed, the first performances were greeted with shouts of "filth". Now regarded as Orton's finest play it is considered by many as a contemporary classic and by some as one of the funniest plays ever written.

This classic farce is set in a private psychiatric clinic run by Dr Prentice. He is trying to avoid the attentions of the inspector, Dr Rance and at the same time, both interview and seduce the young and impressionable Geraldine Barclay.

Dr Prentice's wife is fond of the bottle and none too squeamish about her sexual partners and the resulting confusion, lost and mistaken identities, nymphomania, transvestism, incest, blackmail and bribery all conspire to provide a play with frantic pace, dropping trousers, doors opening and classic English humour. Orton uses the newly found freedoms of the decade to take a surreal look at the world around him, fusing witty word-play with a lunatic zeal.

The Bench Production

What The Butler Saw poster image

This play was staged at The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre (formerly Havant Arts Centre), East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977. Listen to the show trailer as broadcast on Angel Radio. Sarah Parnell was nominated for 'Best Amateur Actress' for her portrayal of Mrs Prentice in The Southern Echo 'Curtain Call' Awards 2009.


Dr PrenticePeter Corrigan
Geraldine BarclaySian Green
Mrs PrenticeSarah Parnell
Nicholas BeckettJack Cronin
Dr RancePete Woodward
Sergeant MatchDan Finch


Director Mark Wakeman
Producer Sally Hartley
Stage Manager Zoë Chapman
Assistant Stage Managers Sharon Morris
Jen Jones
Lighting Design Damon Wakelin
Lighting Operation Charley Callaway
Sound Design Darryl Wakelin
Sound Operation Jaspar Utley
Costume Design Francine Huin-Wah
Set Design Francine Huin-Wah
Set Construction Simon Growcott
Poster and Flier Design Pete Woodward
Programme Editor Derek Callam
Photography Dan Finch
Lorraine Galliers
Front of House Manager Sally Hartley

Director's Notes

This year for us, in the Bench, has been an epic journey spanning five decades. The idea to perform a play from each decade of the company's existence as a celebration of our 40th anniversary has allowed us to do what we do best, present exciting and challenging theatre. It has also allowed us the opportunity to present a world premiere of a play written specifically for our 'State of the Nation' theme.

So now as the year draws to a close we find ourselves back at the beginning in 1969 when the Bench Theatre first exploded onto the local theatre scene with their production of 'Six Characters in Search of an Author'. 'What the Butler Saw' was first performed in 1969 making it the 40th anniversary also of this stage classic, the last play written by Joe Orton and only performed after his death. Despite only producing three full length plays Orton is considered a master of the black comedy genre with this, his final show being full of his trademark quick-fire dialogue and wild comedy.

The 1960s opened up comedy in varied ways, many considering it a golden age. 'Hancock's Half Hour' and 'Steptoe and Son' ruled the television ratings. The Goons recorded their last radio series in 1960 and were repeated throughout the decade and beyond, influencing those who were to come after them, not least he incredibly popular 'Round the Horne'. Also making its debut in 1969, the comedy show that would probably be the biggest influence on any to come thereafter, 'Monty Python's Flying Circus.'

In the cinemas the 'Carry On' series was at its peak in the Talbot Rothwell scripted era (also the writer of the classic series 'Up Pompeii') proving that Britain's love of saucy humour and innuendo was strong. (The films were frequently in the top five box office films of the year and for several years were THE number one box office draw which is something often forgotten!) As well as all this we had 'That Was The Week That Was', 'Beyond the Fringe', 'Not Only But Also' and Spike Milligan's 'Q' series.

Orton manages to combine the strongest elements of a number of these sources: farce and innuendo, political satire and surreal visuals existing in an impossible world where anything can happen. These elements together combine to make what is considered one of the funniest plays ever written. Interest in Orton is still as strong today as when he was working in the 60's with his biopic 'Prick up your Ears' running in the West End and a recent revival of one of his earlier plays 'Entertaining Mr Sloane' also proving a large draw for audiences recently. I was therefore delighted that the Bench chose to select this play as their representative of the 1960s era and after a year of powerful drama it's nice for us to let our hair down a little and present you with a great slice of entertainment that enables us to finish our 40th anniversary year in a celebratory manner.

Thank you for continuing to support local theatre, without you we and groups like us would not be able to continue to bring the best in world theatre to the local stage. So keep on coming... and bring all your friends too!!!!

Mark Wakeman


The NewsJames George

Worth seeing What The Butler Saw

There's a mind-set to Joe Orton's work that makes me think he died at exactly the right time. I suspect the novelty of his plays wouldn't have lasted much beyond his three great pieces, Entertaining Mr Sloane, Loot and What The Butler Saw, all peopled with grotesques, filled with stylised language and peppered with Orton's biting, satiric but ultimately challenging and uncomfortable wit. The last of these - What The Butler Saw - is The Bench's latest performance and generally it's fine stuff.

Mark Wakeman (also - at this performance - brilliantly playing protagonist Dr Prentice) certainly stamps his mark on the piece as both director and actor with a fine, mania-ridden performance. As his wife, the Zoë Wannamaker-esque Sarah Parnell excels in expression and timing and Sian Green and Jack Cronin provide able comic support as the youngsters.

Peter Woodward's Dr Rance is a fine creation, but his often-speedy delivery leads, sometimes, to the ends of words and phrases being swallowed. Dan Finch completes the cast as the bewildered sergeant of police. As-black-as-the-gates-of-hell hilarious, an Orton is always worth seeing.

The News, 20th November 2009

remotegoatJill Lawrie

Comic fantasies of psychiatric diagnosis!

This is the final production from Bench Theatre's 40th anniversary year, in which they have produced a selection of pieces depicting each decade. 'What the Butler Saw' was written by Joe Orton in 1969, the year this theatre company was formed, and at the time this anarchic farce both shocked and appalled with its sexual references and lack of respect for morality and authority. Over time this has now become a contemporary classic.

The plot is set in a mad house, a private psychiatric clinic run by the lustful Dr Prentice, interviewing an incredibly naïve Geraldine Barclay for the position of secretary. Asking her to strip naked and lie on the couch, his attempted seduction is thwarted by the appearance of his nymphomaniac wife, who is being blackmailed by the hotel bellboy producing photos of their entanglement the previous night! Add to this the surprise investigation from a Government Inspector a crackpot psychiatrist Dr Rance and you have a recipe for farcical madness - absurd lines, mistaken identities, cross-dressing, door slamming, dropped trousers...!

Due to Peter Corrigan's sudden admission to hospital, Director Mark Wakeman at the last minute had to step into his shoes and play the part of Dr Prentice, and what an incredible job he did too. A superb performance and barely evident that he carried his script. His performance brilliantly illustrated the doctor's improbable dilemmas of incrimination and mistaken identity. Mention too for a relative newcomer to the company Sarah Parnell (Mrs Prentice) who was outstanding with her amusing air of aloof superiority in the face of such insanity alongside her seductive charms. Peter Woodward (Dr Rance) took on the challenging role of this virtually certifiable character!

All in all an extremely entertaining performance where "the sane appear as strange to the mad as the mad to the sane"!

remotegoat, 21st November 2009

Daily EchoAnne Waggott

What the Butler Saw, Bench Theatre

An ordinary day at a private psychiatric practice descends into chaos with mistaken identities, gender confusion and sex-shenanigans when the psychiatrist interviews his prospective secretary by attempting to seduce her; fine lines between sanity and madness, doctor and patient, and man or woman quickly start to blur.

Peter Corrigan (reminiscent of a cross between Frankie Howerd and Simon Callow) was highly entertaining, blustering and leering his incorrigible way through the mayhem. Sarah Parnell was also excellent as his wife, the perfect 'straight woman' as his foil, showing great skill with visual humour and ideal timing.

Daily Echo, 28th November 2009

Production Photographs