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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Duchess


  Paul McGann and Dominic West/ Ph: Tristram Kenton

Television viewers will know Dominic West as the watchful lead in the Baltimore-based television cop show The Wire. Theatregoers will remember West as the Czech dissident in Stoppard’s Rock ‘n Roll. For those who saw both shows there would have been little in those two fine performances to prepare them for West’s mesmerising portrayal of the eponymous Ben Butley, the bisexual – or belatedly gay – university lecturer in Simon Gray’s 1971 play. 
It is a role in which the author looms large partly because the late Gray (he died in 2008) was also a university English lecturer – although he wasn’t gay – and partly because, like Gray, Butley is a thrillingly articulate boozer with a talent for self-destruction. He is also a verbal terrorist who between drags of cigarettes quotes Wordsworth and T.S. Elliott and launches into camp parodies of the gay alter ego he presumably suppressed while living with his estranged wife Anne (Penny Downie). 
We first encounter him in his office on the first day of term. Peter McKintosh’s design is dominated by two sets of bookshelves. Butley’s are teetering and untidily packed to the rafters. Those belonging to his younger colleague Joseph (Martin Hutson) are well ordered though almost bare. The shelves presumably not only reflect two different stages in life, but two states of mind. 
It is a day of bad news. Soon after Butley discovers that Anne has another man in her life, it is also revealed, even more painfully, that so has Joseph, the man for whom Butley ended his marriage. 
The play is a study in self-loathing, perhaps the only form of hatred that can be attractive. It manifests itself in Butley with the baiting of anyone who comes within range of his terrifying humour. A student gets more than her Wordsworth tutorial when she unexpectedly returns to Butley’s office to find her tutor holding his nose with one hand and her essay at arms length in the other. Butley then drops it into the bin before violently retching over it. 
Joseph also gets his share of withering Butley banter, as does his visiting estranged wife Anne. But it is with Joseph’s bluff Yorkshire boyfriend Reg (a deadpan Paul McGann) that West’s performance climaxes in one of the funniest scenes currently on the London stage. In revenge for taking away Joseph, Butley launches into a sustained, merciless impersonation of northern working-class English stereotype. 
But thanks to the undercurrent of sad self-hatred in West’s performance, we never stop liking Butley. And Lindsay Posner elicits from the supporting cast exactly the right responses to West’s virtuoso performance. They are attracted, repelled, appalled and offended and have no choice but to save themselves by leaving Butley alone. But for us, the two hours and 20 minutes or so that we spend in his company could hardly be more entertaining. 

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