Think of the man who hogs the conversation at a party. Think of the school bully who tormented you at every opportunity. Think of the man who stabs you in the back when you're not around to defend yourself. Think of a man like a dog with a bone who just won't let go of an idea until he's worked it to a frazzle. I could go on, but I am sure you get the picture. The man you're thinking of is Simon Gray's Ben Butley, a university lecturer with an extraordinary appetite for making other people's lives hell on earth and who is rushing headlong towards self-destruction. He drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney, makes an art of doing as little in the work as is humanly possible and leaves a trail of litter and battered emotions wherever he goes.
Writer Simon Gray was a lecturer at Queen Mary College, University of London for 20 years, so he should have had plenty of insights into the academic environment. And there are also similarities between Gray and his fictitious character, Butley. Gray was also a heavy smoker and drinker, and apparently used language to relieve the boredom of routine, like Butley does.
The action all takes place in Butley's office in a college of London University in 1970. Butley is on his own when we first meet him, but he shares the office with Joey Keyston, who is anxious about securing permanent tenure of his post. In Peter McKintosh's design, Butley's side of the office has floor to ceiling bookshelves which are crammed to capacity. On Joey's side, the shelves are empty apart from about a dozen paperbacks. When Joey arrives, Butley immediately starts pestering him about his weekend away in Leeds which has meant that Butley has been left alone and he's desperate for company. Later, Butley's estranged wife arrives to tell him that she's going to get a divorce and remarry. And more bad news is on the way, regarding Joey and his gay publisher partner, Reg.
Dominic West is obviously relishing the part of Ben Butley, pushing himself to the limit in what is an incredibly demanding and exhausting role. He hardly has time to take a breath between lines, at least when there's an audience on hand for Butley to play to. Mr West makes Butley incredibly camp. There are times when you are reminded of Kenneth Williams as West moves instantly between various accents, dialects and poses. It's a formidable performance which not only makes us cringe, but also leaves us feeling just a little sorry for Butley, even though, as I think Alan Bennett once said about an actor, “he's his own worst enemy, but only just”.
Martin Hutson is excellently cast as Joey Keyston – Butley's long-suffering, flatmate who was formerly one of Butley's favoured students. In a sense, Joey is Butley's alter ego – calm, reserved, and sensible, but with the intellect to attract Butley. Penny Downie is also first-rate as lecturer Edna, who finds she's been undermined by Butley's attempts to lure one of her students away from her by getting him to complain about her teaching. And Paul McGann is also in fine form as Joey's gay partner, Reg, who demonstrates that he's more than a match for Butley's verbal battering ram.
If Butley has any positive characteristic it is that he is extremely witty – always good for a laugh as long as you're not on the receiving end of his 'fun'. And there are plenty of laughs to be had here, though the humour doesn't quite get the same kind of response as, say, 'One Man Two Guvnors' which recently opened at the National. Still, there are some excruciatingly funny moments, especially where Butley pushes his luck with Reg by poking fun at his northern roots and pastimes, which make it well-worth a visit.
"In this thrilling performance West somehow combines comedy with tragic depth. The supporting performances are terrific too. Butley is not a show to miss."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Simon Gray’s bitter, brilliant portrait of an alcoholic academic called Ben Butley proves itself to be a modern classic."
Mark Shenton for The Stage
"This is an outstanding and revealing portrait of a pathetic, selfpersecuted man. West cleverly pulls back the skin of his existence to reveal a rather sad figure.
Paul callan for The Daily Express
"It's worth catching for West. He makes disenchantment seem both sexy and repugnant. And amid the whiplash insults and the self-lacerating remarks, there are moments of genuinely deep comedy and pregnant pathos.. "
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Butley shines like a gold coin, and one that comes with the embossed head of Dominic West, discovered in a sea of candyfloss...Lindsay Posner's production also yields good performances from Martin Hutson as the timorous Joey...I actually prefer some of Gray's later plays, but it's good to be reminded once again of his skill in anatomising the permanently arrested adolescence and endless capacity for denial of the middle-class English male."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"[Dominic West]superb performance...Fine 1970s revival."
Sarah Hemming for The Financial Times