WHAT THE BUTLER SAW Emporium, Brighton


Joe Orton would have liked The Emporium. This deconsecrated Methodist church has been a theatre and café for a couple of years now. It was at the vanguard of the regeneration of an unloved part of the city. Gary Blair and James Weisz work hard at keeping it afloat with sharp and well targeted programming. Beckett, Pinter, Sondheim and Orton have all been staged here – modern classics aimed squarely at the central Brighton demi-monde. The venue is fashionably scruffy; the food, beer and coffee are good.

Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell went house-hunting close to The Emporium; their last trip together was an outing to Brighton ten days before Halliwell bludgeoned him to death with a hammer. Orton was working on the first draft of ‘What the Butler Saw’ at the time. In his diaries he relates breaking free from Halliwell one gloomy, damp Brighton night. In a borrowed mac he visits a Gents’ lavatory beside a church where he meets a tall aristocrat and a dwarf “skulking in the corner.”

His plays are hard to get right. Play him too broad and comedic and the lines fall flat. Characters must remain unaware of their absurdities leaving work for the audience to do. Kearns’ cast are note perfect.Once the ear tunes in to the epigrams there’s plenty to enjoy – one of the biggest laughs of the night went to orgasm-faking Mrs Prentice announcing to her husband, “My uterine contractions have been bogus for some time.”
Director and designer Patrick Kearns has assembled a powerful company. Brian Capron (beloved in his murderous role as one of Gail Platt’s husbands on Coronation Street) effortlessly takes the lead as the priapic shrink, Dr Prentice, Jenny Funnell plays his highly strung wife with a nice harmonic of hysteria. Special mention to the superb performance of Michael Kirk as the senior psychiatrist: his strutting around and Herbert Lom mid-distance stares give real weight to the character.
The action takes place in the consulting room of a psychiatric hospital. The drama ignites when Dr Prentice is caught in flagrante by his wife. To escape her wrath he declares his victim insane, cue a couple of hours of characters in various states of undress, distress and consciousness dashing in and out of the four side doors of the stage. Farce relies on the audience buying in to the unfolding logic of the circumstances and it’s a measure of the success of this production that the audience were hooked in from the start. The first act, before the pace becomes too frenetic, is more successful than the second but this is a fault of the play and a reminder that it was still a work in progress when Orton was murdered. A farce it may be, but in tackling issues of insanity one can’t help feeling that he was mining the material of his own life and the unravelling mental condition of Halliwell. He never saw his play performed. He’d have relished this Brighton production.

box office tickets@emporiumbrighton.com to 9 May
rating: four    4 Meece Rating


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