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A CurtainUp London London Review

You know how it taxes me to teach books I've never read! — Ben Butley
Dominic West as Ben Butley and Martin Hutson as Joseph Keyston (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Dominic West the star of the immensely praised television series The Wire comes back to the London stage to star in Butley Simon Gray's 1970 dark comedy about a university academic whose intellect is trained on the verbal destruction of others and whose venomous barbs eventually come home to isolate him. Set in the days before universities were under pressure to perform with students paying their own large fees and the advent of league tables, Ben Butley (Dominic West) is answerable to no-one.

Butley is an alcoholic, a shirker, fobbing off students asking for tutorials with excuses about them not starting until the next week, and when phoned by other academics telling them that he is in the midst of a tutorial. His lack of social morality is reprehensible, his tongue vicious, yet he keep us watching as he inflicts pain on others because he is blisteringly witty. Even the rather dour Edna giggles when he calls the Principal of the college, the Faerie Queen. He peppers his conversation with pieces of annoying nursery rhyme type language in between the bitchiness. At no level is he a success, neither professionally nor personally. As an academic and writer his tome on TS Eliot seems blocked while Pennie Downey's fellow lecturer dowdy Edna will get hers on Byron published.

The university office set is split into one side with the bookshelves over stuffed and chaotic and on the other side, a few neat books. This half of the room is occupied by Joseph Keyston (Martin Hutson) Butley's protégé, flatmate and implied gay lover. Butley's intense jealousy and attempt to control Joe's private life by denigrating Joe's Northern boyfriend Reg and mocking Reg's northern roots makes his possessiveness seem that of a spurned gay lover but maybe all that has to generate Butley's spite is rejection, in effect Joe choosing to spend time with Reg rather than Butley. Butley appears not to know anything about his child living with his separated wife Anne (Amanda Drew) as he fences solicitous questions from Edna. When Anne comes to tell him that she has struck up a relationship with schoolteacher Tom, in Butley's opinion, the most boring person in London, he is unable to make any attempt to save his marriage. There is the pertinent comment on sixth form teachers being like "firemen called in to quench flames that are already out".

In the second act the towers of Butley's isolation start to close in. The first encounter with a student has him asking about her essay, "Exactly how much longer is this actually?" and the second with Mr Gardner (Cal Brigden) ends as soon as it has begun. The encounter with Joe's publisher lover Reg (Paul McGann) sees Butley meeting the strongest resistance from this dour Northerner, his taunts neatly resisted.

It is a magnificent performance from Dominic West, actively physically with the comic interlude at the beginning of the play when the anglepoise lamp works on Joe's desk but not on Butley's despite changing it over and then leaving the wires stretched out across the passage in the centre of the room while we wait for someone to fall over them. Alan Bates originated this role, onstage and in film, and said it was his favourite play. Harold Pinter directed both the play and the film on Butley. There is an allusion in Butleyto Bates in the film Women in Love when Butley says they were "passing up the chance of a Lawrentian wrestle" and another literary reference to Leontes' isolation in the Winter's Tale as Butley surveys the wreckage of his life. West also shows great dexterity with a range of local accents especially as he mocks Reg. Martin Hutson as Joe gives a fine performance, sensitive yet trapped.

Simon Gray's study of self destruction makes us wonder how much Butley was an aspect of his own personality; after all Gray was a lecturer in English at Queen Mary College, London University for almost 20 years from 1965, he was witty, smoked like a chimney and an alcoholic. Gray doesn't tell us why Butley is like this, just that he is and like so many that shelter behind an excoriating wit, afraid of being alone.

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Written by Simon Gray
Directed by Lindsay Posner

Starring: Dominic West, Pennie Downey, Paul McGann
With: Amanda Drew, Emma Hiddleston, Cal Brigden, Martin Hutson
Designer: Peter McKintosh
Lighting: Howard Harrison
Sound: Matt McKenzie
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 579 1973
Booking to 27th Auhgust 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 6th June 2011 performance at the Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, London WC2B 5LA (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)

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