Review: Butley - ‘plenty to savour’

Butley (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday May 28th, then Duchess Theatre, London, until August 27th)

THIS is, of course, a biggie. Four days in Brighton prior to a West End run for a revival of one of Simon Gray’s best-known plays 40 years on from its premiere.

It would be fair to say that expectations have been high for this production – an impressive cast in a brilliant play which hasn’t enjoyed a major revival over the years – and it’s a delight to report that there is nothing to disappoint and plenty to savour.

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The play is never too clever for its own good, so the side swipes at the crusty world of academia are not lost way above the heads of any audience – and director Lindsay Posner ensures that this production is never allowed to wallow in any kind of nostalgia and not once does it seem dated (a criticism levelled at other would-be revivals).

It is a joy to see Dominic West on stage in the title role of the mercurial sardonic alcoholic university lecturer who seems determined to bring about his own downfall, destroying relationships and pretty much all else in his path in ways that are sad if not classically tragic. Ben Butley (whose very name somehow evokes thoughts of one of the animal heroes of the Beatrix Potter novellas he relishes) is a familiar self-destructive character from the writer, with a sense of mischief, plus a rapier wit that carves most of his problems (no coincidence surely that a razor cut while shaving lasts throughout the play), and West manages to give him a new dimension for the 21st Century as he spirals towards his personal dies rationis.

West’s Butley is an intellectual whose life is a mess, yet he is always lovable and funny, even when gasping for breath in the midst of his own Slough of Despond. Despite the descent into chaos and misery being entirely his own fault, it is impossible not to feel a sense of pity as West shifts from outraged drama queen to misanthrope to flawed anti-hero.

Each of the other characters brings an added indignity to the professor’s dismal day, each crushing a little more of his overblown ego. Martin Hutson is splendid as Joey, Butley’s former pupil, now lover and fellow lecturer, seeking escape from this insecure relationship. The divine Penny Downie, always superb in any role, is perfect as the flustered colleague, Byron expert Edna, whose long-prepared tome on the poet is finally to be published, bringing another dampener to proceedings.

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Amanda Drew makes the most of her short scene as Butley’s wife Anne, who wants to leave him to marry “the most boring man in London”, who has himself penned a possible bestseller; while a quiet and assured Paul McGann brings a touch of the sinister to the role of Reg, the plain-speaking publisher for whom Joey leaves Ben, and one can’t help but wonder just what sort of controlling relationship that might turn out to be such is the chilling side given to the fascinating character here.

While undoubtedly a difficult play to dust down for a modern audience, the quality and precision of performances and direction ensure this is a welcome and thoroughly entertaining revival.

David Guest