Peter McKintosh’s set for Butley tells us from the start there’s an odd couple relationship about to unfold: In the shared office of two University lecturers, one side is obsessively neat, with almost no books on the shelves; on the other the books overflow from the stuffed shelves. The latter belongs to Ben Butley (Dominic West,) an English lecturer with a fondness for cigarettes and alcohol, coupled with an aversion to actually teaching anyone English literature. He shares the space with Joey (Martin Hutson,) an assistant lecturer, who was once his student, is now his flatmate, and may have been more in the past. In a single day in 1970 everything goes wrong for Butley, writer Simon Gray hanging a lantern on the Aristotelean construction of his play: A number of characters arrive over the course of the day, all bearing bad news. His estranged wife (Amanda Drew) wants a divorce so she can marry a man Butley hates; a colleague he can't stand (Penny Downie) has had her book published while his remains unwritten; Joey wants to move in with his boyfriend Reg (Paul McGann) and his students (Emma Hiddleston and Cai Bridgen) seem to expect him to teach them something.
Unfortunately however many one-liners Gray gives Butley, added to the multitude of accents, impressions and Tom Bakeresque wild-eyed booming across the stage that West supplies, the character is still appalling. His response to all these setbacks is to bully, interfere and actually try to cause genuine harm to anyone unlucky enough to come anywhere near him - it's no wonder everyone wants to get away from him, what the play doesn't give us any idea of is why they were with him in the first place. The second act is more interesting as we find out more (but not enough) about Butley and Joey's co-dependent, mutually destructive relationship which has an element of something genuinely fascinating about it. But there's nobody to care about: The programme notes inform us that Gray was so fond of other men's company people mistakenly thought he was gay. They obviously needed to tell us that as there's no hint of it in a play where all the male characters are unpleasant in one way or another (the female roles are little more than cameos.) Lindsay Posner's production is strongly acted, especially by the central duo of West and Hutson who spark off each other well, but it lacks any humanity which makes it feel like two and half hours of being assaulted with bile.
Butley by Simon Gray is booking until the 27th of August at the Duchess Theatre.