by Simon Gray.
Duchess Theatre Catherine Street WC2B 5LA To 27 August 2011.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Thu & Sat 3pm.
Runs 2hr 25min One interval.
TICKETS: 0844 412 4659.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 7 June.
Smart portrait of self-destruction..
Anti-heroes, spawned by Look Back in Anger’s Jimmy Porter in 1956, were clearly older and sort-of well fifteen years later, when Simon Gray created English lecturer Ben Butley.
“Sort-of”, because Butley mumbles Alexander Pope’s line about “This long disease my life.” Nowadays the cure’s simple: Butley needs to get out more. He spends the play in the university office shared with former student Joseph Keyston. Their relationship has become more personal (most men and possibly one of the women here are gay).
But Joe wants to work, and Ben – immature in all but age – won’t let him. Bored with literature, contemptuous of students – Emma Hiddleston’s finely understated as the bright, persistent undergraduate who has his measure and catches him out – Butley’s interested only in himself.
He has nothing to offer but his genius, something progressively revealed as mere talent for hurtful wit. And he’s sneaky, from the opening when he tries swapping desk-lamps to the deliberate malice with which he tries undermining Reg, his stolid northern rival for Joe, whose somewhat contrived arrival brings, in Paul McGann’s determinedly composed character, a dose of unimpressed reality.
Gray sees through Butley in two senses, which is what gives the play its fascination. And, in Lindsay Posner’s energetic revival, Dominic West’s mobile character, leaning (in all senses) to the camp, agitated and showing fury beneath the funster, energises the action in front of the chaotic bookshelves behind him in Peter McIntosh’s set.
Amanda Drew brings the cool stability Mrs Butley knows is required against his sallies to her brief, pivotal appearance. Penny Downie copes well with the series of comings and goings Gray saddles her with, hair mounted on the head in coiled-up passion, the earnest supporter of traditional values whose dowdy appearance belies years devoted to Byron.
The other side of the era’s universities is caught by Cai Brigden’s vacuous undergrad. And Martin Hutson’s outstanding as Joe, keen on the kind of career Butley’s throwing away, in a performance maintaining vocal characterisation at the most excitable and angry moments, and clarifying each switch of focus in response to his colleague/ex-partner’s tactical antics.
Ben Butley: Dominic West.
Joseph Keyston: Martin Hutson.
Miss Heasman: Emma Hiddleston.
Edna Shaft: Penny Downie.
Anne Butley: Amanda Drew.
Reg Nuttall: Paul McGann.
Mr Gardner: Cai Brigden.
Director: Lindsay Posner.
Designer: Peter McIntosh.
Lighting: Howard Harrison.
Sound: Matt McKenzie.
Assistant director: Tom Attenborough.