What The Butler Saw

Written by Joe Orton

Thursday 3rd May to Saturday 5th and Tuesday 8th May to Saturday 12th May 1984

Directed by Jo German

A frantic farce, 'What the Butler Saw' is set in a psychiatric clinic yet there isn't a madman in sight. The bizarre proceedings stem from Dr Prentice's efforts to conceal his attempted seduction of his prospective secretary. What follows is a hilarious spectacle of disintegration; normality crack and the characters descent into mental, physical and sexual confusion.

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 Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977. Bench Theatre also staged this play again in 2009, as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations under the direction of Mark Wakeman.


Dr PrenticeDavid Penrose
Geraldine BarclayJude Salmon
Mrs PrenticeJane Hart
Nicholas BeckettDavid Brown
Dr RancePeter Corrigan
Sergeant MatchPeter Colley


Director Jo German
Stage Manager Robbie Cattermole
Assistant Stage Manager Terry Cattermole
Lighting Paul Francis
Sound Colin Hardy
Photographs Chris Shaw
Poster Jane Hart
Publicity Penny Cameron

Director's Notes

A frantic farce, 'What the Butler Saw' is set in a psychiatric clinic yet there isn't a madman in sight. The bizarre proceedings stem from Dr Prentice's efforts to conceal his attempted seduction of his prospective secretary. What follows is a hilarious spectacle of disintegration; normality cracks and the characters descent in to mental,physical sand sexual confusion. Identity is discounted, the characters' grip on reality fades and as the confusion grows, the play moves from the ridiculous to the murderous, from daydream to nightmare.

Jo German

"You may speak freely in front of me - I represent Her Majesty's government, your immediate superiors in madness."

Dr Rance

"My wife is a nymphomaniac. Consequently like the Holy Grail, she is ardently sought after by young men.

Dr Prentice


The NewsJanice Macfarlane

Ordered trip into lunacy

Madness is all in the mind. For a well-ordered day-trip into lunacy, you can't do better than the Bench Theatre's production of Joe Orton's 'What The Butler Saw'. This slick, well-paced, and terribly funny production is a triumph of black farce, all the better for the intimate auditorium of Havant Arts Centre. The action, set in a psychiatric clinic, starts with Dr Prentice's failed seduction of his prospective secretary. The unexpected intervention of his frustrated wife, then a born-again nutty psychologist working for the Government, create a fast-moving farrago of sex-and-identity swops.

Watch the boundaries of sexology break down when an everyday erotic dalliance gets totally out of hand. See nubile bodies stripped to the bare minimum before your very eyes. And what indeed does the butler see? You must await the very private and personal appearance of the Right Hon. Winston Churchill to find out. "The sane must appear as strange to the mad, as the mad to the sane" says the sinister and questionable Dr Rance. Fortunately, we have a clear-eyed view of the distinction, thanks to lucid performances and good team-work from David Penrose, Jude Salmon, Jane Hart, David Brown, Peter Corrigan and Peter Colley. Pete Holding and the stage crew ensured a smooth run though a mad, mad world with a beautifully clean and clinical set.

The audience reaction to Churchill's last stand was probably the most interesting feature of the first night. Joe Orton had to submit to the Lord Chancellor in his day, whereas Bench director Jo German can tie up the end of this modern production by invoking, without shame, the best traditions of classical comedy. "What the Butler Saw" continues tonight and tomorrow and from Tuesday to Saturday next week.

The News, 4th May 1984

Production Photographs