Ben Butley (Dominic West) is a colossal bastard.
A lecturer in English, he finds students and staff unbearable, work insufferable, and takes only negative pleasure in his interactions with his estranged wife, Anne (Amanda Drew), and his lover, Joseph (Martin Hutson), with whom he shares a dilapidated office. Brilliant, witty and naturally exuberant (when not giving tutorials), he gleefully channels his unhappiness into those around him. He appears surprised, and a little wounded, when this eventually backfires.
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This revival of Simon Gray’s 1971 play has tremendous energy and wit, but (not unlike Butley himself), it’s only partly likeable. Back in the 70s, being a fearless egotist may have been considered a defiant act of Nietzschean brilliance, but in an age of reality TV, self-obsessed queens are ten a penny. The first act, in which Butley mercilessly harangues Joseph, is one-sided, and only in the second act, when our antihero is faced with more worthy opponents, including Joseph’s new flame, Reg (Paul McGann) do the dramatic sparks really start to fly.
But that’s a criticism of the play, and its era, not the players. With a leading role in HBO’s The Wire and screen credits including 300 and Centurion, West has established himself as a muscular performer (both figuratively and literally). As Butley, he prowls and flounces about the stage, his face a grinning mask behind which he readies his next perfectly-timed barb. It’s an engaging, deft performance which communicates his character’s manic brilliance and inner loathing through nuance as well as theatricality.
Other roles are well cast, including Penny Downie as Edna, Butley’s long-suffering colleague. McGann is particularly good as Reg, a brusque northerner and a rival for Joseph’s affections.
Ramrod-straight and taciturn, his powerful, still presence is the perfect foil to Butley’s flamboyance, and watching the pair spar is pure pleasure. The two men are clearly deeply ashamed of their sexuality, and have chosen to deal with it in different ways, Butley through alcohol and Reg through denial. They may be fighting over the same boyfriend, but, in reality, they deserve each other.
Until 27 August at the Duchess Theatre, London.
Tickets and information here or visit ticketmaster.co.uk