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Butley review at Duchess Theatre London

Returning to the West End a month or so shy of 40 years since it was originally premiered at the Criterion Theatre in 1971, Simon Gray’s bitter, brilliant portrait of an alcoholic academic called Ben Butley proves itself to be a modern classic.

Gray – himself an academic with a sometimes profitable, sometimes agonising sideline in writing 40 or so plays – regularly sounded autobiographical notes in his work, but never offered a more completely inhabited study of a man on a journey of poignant, self-immolating destructiveness, and the wry, detached amusement he brings to attempting to bring other people down with him.

It’s clearly not only written from the heart but with an astonishing self-knowledge and prescience, fictionalised through a man who is deserted in turn by both his wife and the young, gay former student turned protege who had moved in with him.

As played with lacerating brilliance by Dominic West, who brings a mercurial, restless sense of wounded and wounding loss to him, the character is a fascinating study in toxic contradictions – a man uncomfortable in his own skin who is determined to get under other people’s instead.

By turns gritty and witty, playful and camp, West dominates, but Lindsay Posner’s production aches with feeling throughout, with Martin Hutson terrific as Butley’s protege. The second-act scene between West, Hutson and Paul McGann as the protege’s northern boyfriend is a masterful Pinteresque battle of possession and domination.

Amanda Drew and Penny Downie make their mark, too, to bring weight to underwritten parts as Butley’s wife and a fellow academic.

Production Information

Duchess Theatre, London, May 31-Aug 27

Simon Gray
Lindsay Posner
Mark Rubinstein, Eleanor Lloyd, Lee Menzies, Dena Hammerstein, Pam Pariseau, Jay Harris
Dominic West, Paul McGann, Penny Downie, Amanda Drew, Emma Hiddleston, Cai Brigden, Martin Hutson
Running time
2hr 20mins
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