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Review Round-up: Critics Hail West’s Butley

The West End revival of Simon Gray's Butley starring Dominic West opened at the Duchess Theatre last night (6 June, previews from 31 May 2011).

Butley, written by Gray in 1971, centres on a rapier-tongued lecturer trying to cope with the strains of divorce and academia.

The character was famously portrayed by Alan Bates when the play premiered at the Criterion Theatre in 1971, under the direction of Harold Pinter, subsequently transferring to Broadway and being made into a film in 1974.

For this production, Lindsay Posner directs a cast which includes Amanda Drew, Martin Hutson Penny Downie, Paul McGann, Cai Brigden and Emma Hiddleston.

Were the critics won over by West’s take on the self-destructive English don with a passion for Beatrix Potter?

Michael Coveney

“You have to give it up for Dominic West. Since finding fame and fortune as flawed cop Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, he has set himself huge targets on stage; breathing fiery life into the impossible Segismundo in Life is a Dream at the Donmar, and taking on Iago later this year in his home town of Sheffield. The middle portrait in this triptych of gabbing, self-obsessed lunatic misanthropes is Ben Butley, Simon Gray’s intensely dislikeable English tutor in a London University college who, in the course of a decidedly downbeat day, gloats over his own dismissal by (he thinks, withdrawal from) the rest of the world … West bravely and uncompromisingly exposes Butley for the bastard he undoubtedly is, and the play for its shocking rawness … The lacerating manner in which Butley discusses his own sexuality ('I’m a one-woman man, and I’ve had mine, thank God') and the class origins of Joseph’s new publisher boyfriend, place the piece in the vanguard of what theatre dealt with forty years ago; and it still stings. Around the central duet, Paul McGann is surprising and sinister as Joseph’s new beau, Reg Nuttall, and there are superbly contrasting performances of defeat and disappointment by Amanda Drew as the wife and Penny Downie as the derided colleague. It’s a period piece, but a valuable one in its unflinching look at spiritual corruption and cynicism in the world of public discourse and higher education.”

Michael Billington

“Seeing Simon Gray's play revived in the West End, after a gap of 40 years, induces a feeling of nostalgia ... Butley shines like a gold coin, and one that comes with the embossed head of Dominic West, discovered in a sea of candyfloss ... What gives the play a tragic dimension, over and above its quick verbal comedy, is that Butley can never fully acknowledge his true sexual nature. He hides behind a peculiarly English prevarication which shows itself in several ways: he retreats into a world of Beatrix Potter fantasy, euphemistically talks of Joey as his 'protege' and ridicules Joey's new lover for his affected masculinity. Yet Butley's hypocrisy is even greater: although he talks of his marriage as an 'intermission', he can't face up to the fact that his life is falling apart because he is losing his male lover. If he lives in a world of 'abuse, jokes, games', it is out of self-deception … Lindsay Posner's production also yields good performances from Martin Hutson as the timorous Joey, overawed by his partner's rancid eloquence, and from Paul McGann as Joey's steely new Yorkshire lover. And, although Gray's women are underwritten, both Penny Downie as a bitterly aggrieved academic and Amanda Drew as the rejected Anne endow their characters with an extra-textual life.”

Libby Purves
The Times

“Now here’s an actor at full stretch — timed to a hair, using the space, mixing subtlety into broad comedy and absurdity into emotion … Dominic West is amazing. It’s a tricky play, much of it a two-hander in a messy study, as Butley torments his former pupil and flatmate, the ambitious academic Joey (Martin Hutson), with only interruptions from other characters to set off jokes on literary academia and education, and echoes of Eliot and Beatrix Potter ... West always conveys the agony of his loneliness ... He loses everyone he needs to people he despises, yet is outraged when even the despised ones don’t call … Martin Hutson’s Joey is tense with cowed fealty, and Penny Downie — beneath an artfully hilarious she-don hairdo — has a lovely awkwardness and blushes to order. Paul McGann is a taciturn, hard-edged Reg with trouser-creases sharp enough to cut butter, Amanda Drew a frosty wife, and when Emma Hiddleston as the pupil reads out her 'thus'-studded Shakespeare essay, she gives the phrase 'a Winter's Tale of a frozen soul' just enough pomposity to cue Butley’s ‘Bit fishmongery, that’. And she lets her face crumple, just a little, as many of us once did in tutorials.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

“The lead role in Simon Gray's claustrophobic character study is a gift, and Dominic West revels in it. As battered academic Ben Butley, a colossus of misanthropy, the star of The Wire conveys the destructive magnetism of a man who's not far short of a monster ... He is a type with whom we're all familiar, using his tirades not to repel people but in a thoroughly perverse attempt to attract them. An alcoholic, he's embittered and slovenly yet still in love with the quickness of his wit. He appears to be flaying himself alive, stripping away the layers of his being … West hints tantalisingly at his character's acts of repression and takes throaty pleasure in articulating his many discontents, not the least of which is the maddening desire of his students to receive some actual teaching. He is a restless performer, physical and vigorous; even when he pauses for a moment's stillness, we sense his coiled energy waiting to burst free … 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.”

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

Dominic West appeared on the West End last night playing a ‘jowly’, drink-mottled university lecturer. The casting does not really work but Mr West cannot be faulted for effort … He probably makes him too energetic. He leaps around the stage whereas a genuine Butley would surely lumber and creak ... When this Butley drinks, there is little sign of the whisky hitting an old spot ... I have come across quite a few drunken college dons in my time - in Dublin one of my lecturers gave us tutorials in a pub - and do not recall one ever being quite as zesty as Mr West's Butley. Simon Gray's play will appeal to high-brow theatregoers who did English degrees ... Butley is an outsider, a loner, a brave voice against tweeness. He hates bores ... Life would be dull without a few Butleys … The middle of the first half sags a bit but things pick up when Butley biffs it to one of his bossier undergraduates - he even gives her a Hitler salute. However, we come back to the issue of handsome Mr West's physical suitability for the role. He does not strike me as nearly seedy enough. The voice does not rasp. It is not the throaty timbre of a true booze and 'baccy fiend. Close, but no cigar."

Sarah Hemming
Financial Times

Dominic West opens his superb performance in Butley with a passage of comic stage business that almost rivals that of Mark Rylance’s early-morning routine in Jerusalem. He saunters into his tatty office, plonks himself down at his spectacularly untidy desk, hurls his damp raincoat and a banana skin on to his colleague’s pristine desk and then goes to extraordinary lengths to swap his broken desk lamp with his workmate’s functioning one. It is a fabulous display of bad behavior … Simon Gray created a portrait of a middle-aged English lecturer bent on self-destruction. Ben Butley has clearly been brilliant, but somewhere along the line he has lost faith and become an unstable mix of wit, devilment, despair and recklessness … He is poisonous, devious and outrageous. But, as West conveys, Butley is also a desperately lonely man. West pitches the character beautifully, making him witty, brash and unpredictable, a performer terrified of losing his audience. He wheels about the stage, bullying the timid Joey (beautifully drawn by Martin Hutson) and spouting one-liners. At the same time, West shows us glimpses of fear and self-loathing in his character. Is he bisexual? Probably – but whatever his sexuality, his tragedy is that he loses those he might love because he cannot admit that he needs them. His reaction, and he knows it, is to dig himself deeper into a lonely hole.”

Charles Spencer

“The boozing, the cigarettes, the sardonic humour and the air of dishevelled chaos that surrounds Butley will all be recognisable to anyone who knew Gray, who died in 2008, or has read his brilliant, highly addictive diaries. The great news is that Dominic West, best known until now for his leading role as a brooding Baltimore cop in the cult American TV series The Wire, proves here that he is also a tremendous comic actor. Whether forgetting his own daughter’s name when his wife comes to tell him she is leaving him for a man Butley regards as the most boring fellow in London, or learning that his male lover has also decided to call time on their relationship, West is superbly, fluently and savagely comic. But this burly and charismatic actor also achieves something even harder. In these po-faced days of political correctness when I suspect many in the audience would expect to hate someone like Butley, with his disgracefully funny riffs on homosexuality, marriage, comic Northerners and earnest students, West also makes you care about the character. Even as you laugh, and Butley seems perversely, irresistibly intent on making his terrible situation even worse, West never forfeits sympathy. The pain and weary despair behind the manic grins, and his devastating put-downs is palpable — and deeply moving. In this thrilling performance West somehow combines comedy with tragic depth. The supporting performances are terrific too. Butley is not a show to miss.”

- Matt Hannigan

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