The Theatreguide.London Review
Duchess Theatre Summer 2011
A couple of seasons back, a revival of Jeffrey Barnard Is Unwell, about the alcoholic journalist, failed because we realised that the world had changed and drunks just didn't seem funny anymore. I suspect that this revival of Simon Gray's 1971 comedy-drama may have a similar effect.
Perhaps because we've seen it all too many times, perhaps because Gray's version is too watered-down to be especially effective, the story of a self-loathing failure lashing out at others just isn't all that funny or dramatically interesting.
Gray's antihero is a university English lecturer who has lost all interest in literature, teaching or students. His marriage has collapsed, his protege-officemate is escaping from his influence and barely-disguised desire, and even the most plodding of his colleagues are more academically productive than he.
Butley's response to everything is sardonic joking, frequently very clever, but clearly the product of an underlying desperation, a whistling-in-the-dark to avoid facing the emptiness of his life and his soul.
This might be strong stuff, even though every TV cop and doctor in the past forty years has gone through the same crisis at least once. But Gray is too busy keeping Butley witty to give us much sense of his pain, or of much depth to the man. You need only compare this play to John Osborne's similar but very much more powerful Inadmissable Evidence to see how Gray has candy-coated his vision.
And Lindsay Posner's production does too little either to sharpen the tone or to soften it even further and reduce it to empty comedy, leaving us with a play that wants to be more moving than it can be.
Dominic West works hard at Butley's sardonic charm, producing the one strong effect of the play, the sense that the character (and not just the actor) is working overly hard at being light and witty. It is that, more than any glimpses of depth in the character or hints of impending breakdown, that suggests that the man is in trouble and the play is more than a trivial comedy.
Martin Hutson holds his own as the put-upon sidekick and Paul McGann has a strong scene as the one character not bullied by Butley's bullying wit. But Penny Downie as a colleague, Amanda Drew as Butley's wife, and Emma Hiddleston and Cal Brigden as students are all made little use of in what amount to walk-on roles.
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Review - Butley - Duchess 2011