University English lecturer Ben Butley is having a bad day at the office. His estranged wife pops in to tell him she wants a divorce so that she can marry “the most boring man in London”, while he rows with his gay co-worker and housemate about the latter’s boyfriend. Meantime, he offends a colleague by encouraging a tutee to transfer to him, but spends most of the time trying to avoid pesky students who turn up demanding to be taught as his life falls apart.
Simon Gray’s 1971 black comedy is the prototype for a number of his plays about male mid-life crisis, with a smattering of literary references which reflect his own parallel career as an academic. The heavy-drinking Butley seems bent not only on self-destruction but on bringing others around him down to his level. This malevolent joker uses cynical wit to mock people’s pretensions and hypocrisies, but it all seems to stem from the self-loathing of a man who has never come to terms with his own bisexuality. The play begins with plenty of amusing banter but darkens later as he moves ever closer to the edge.
Lindsay Posner’s production captures well the sense of comic desperation in Gray’s portrait of a man laughing as he goes down. Peter McKintosh’s cluttered set, with a mass of books bulging from shelves, a lopsided photograph of T.S. Eliot on the wall and papers strewn on the floor suggests the mess of an intelligent but disordered mind
On stage the whole time, Dominic West holds our attention throughout as the entertaining anti-hero, but refusing to make him too sympathetic. He shows us how Butley’s relentless irony masks a deep personal and professional jealousy and insecurity. Although he slightly overdoes the manic campness, in the few moments he has alone West strongly conveys the inner conflict of someone looking into an abyss. It’s a role that in some ways is not wholly divorced from that of hard-bitten Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty in The Wire; his growing stage pedigree will be tested even further when he plays Iago at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre later this year.
Martin Hutson also does extremely well as Butley’s “protégé” Joseph, with his passive hesitancy nicely complementing the former’s in-your-face bullishness, albeit hiding a dogged determination to move on. Though as tends to be the case, Gray’s female characters are underwritten, both Amanda Drew as Butley’s no-nonsense wife and Penny Downie as his comically pathetic colleague manage to make an impact. Paul McGann also packs a punch playing Joseph’s quietly menacing, buttoned-up publisher lover, who gives Butley the comeuppance he is so desperately looking for.