The best laid plans oft gang aft and having pretty much decided not to bother with the Simon Gray play Butley, opening now at the Duchess Theatre, as I have been trying (and admittedly failing) to try and cut down on the amount of theatre I’m seeing, sure enough an offer I could not refuse popped up (courtesy of @bargaintheatre – a chap well worth a follow on Twitter for his ferreting around for some great deals) and so 10 English pounds for the best available seats in the stalls were spent for this first London review, the play having done a week in Brighton already.
Ben Butley is an academic stuck in an English department in a university at some point in the 1970s and having a frankly horrific first day of term. His wife wants a divorce, he is struggling to write his book on TS Eliot whilst his colleague has got a publishing deal, his students expecting their tutorials are impinging on his time but most significantly of all, his protégé Joseph, with whom he shares his office, his flat and frustratingly vague hints of further intimacy, is seeking his independence both professionally and domestically, about to move in with his lover Reg. In response to this turn of events, he turns up the irascibility and petulance as he flails against a world moving on without him, masking his fear of failure through some thoroughly obnoxious behaviour and a scathing line in rapier-sharp wit.
West is a delightful actor and there are moments of cracking entertainment here as he toys with everyone around him, displaying a great physical playfulness as well as an amusing gift for accents and his constant picking at the scab of his bleeding shaving cut is a nice physical manifestation of his approach to his relationships. But for Butley as a character, I found little to engage me with him and provoke any measure of sympathy in his predicament. He seeks to extend his self-destructive tendencies so far as to irreparably wreck the lives of all those around him too and whatever moral code exists in me protested against this, no amount of witty one-liners could excuse that, particularly as there’s no hint of any move towards self-awareness nor the sense of the man he might have been in the past (even if there was, I probably wouldn’t have liked him either…). And so I just didn’t connect with Butley, the man or the play, care what happened to him or buy the idea of his possible redemption.
As his protégé, Martin Hutson is really rather good, neatly suggesting that his loyalties have not shifted completely as he struggles to hide his laughter at Butley’s barbs towards his new man, even though there is little to suggest why his devotion is so strong. And circling around them, there’s excellent support from Penny Downie as his rather daffy colleague and department rival and Paul McGann’s dour northern Reg, his rival in the affections of Joseph, has a wonderfully composed demeanour which Butley can’t help but try to provoke. As his wife though, I can’t help but feel Amanda Drew is too good an actress to be playing cameos such as these: I spent most of the second half waiting for her character to reappear, only to be frustrated when she did not!
I should probably have stuck to my original instinct about not seeing this play as I did recognise it to be the kind of theatre that just doesn’t connect with me and I was right. It does look good in Peter McKintosh’s cramped office set with Butley’s half threatening to collapse under the weight of its contents and in Hutson and West, it boasts two strong performances that might well endear the show to others. Probably the best thing I can say for it personally is that it has tempted me to seriously consider making the trip up to Sheffield to see West rejoin Wire co-star Clarke Peters in the Crucible’s forthcoming Othello. Now what was I saying about cutting down…