Simon Gray’s play, first produced 40 years ago, doesn’t seem to have aged at all. Set in a nameless London University in a rickety shared office, we witness a day in the life of burnt-out lecturer Ben Butley, and what a day it is! Starting with a shaving nick which refuses to stop bleeding, it’s downhill all the way into the depths of loneliness and despair.
The casting of Dominic West, who made his name as dissolute but charming cop Jimmy McNulty in ‘The Wire’, is inspired. Butley is a character who is hard to like at the best of times, but with West’s ability to flesh out all the nuances and bring emotional depth as well as wit and insight, we end up rooting for him. From the moment he enters alone, and starts to ‘organise’ himself in his office on the first day of term, battling his way out of an old rain mac before sitting on it only to discover a half-eaten banana, we are completely absorbed in the world of Butley. The shared office, cleverly divided down the middle, immediately illustrates the many years of neglect on Butley’s side, with books and papers piled high and stuffed into every corner, while the other half remains almost pristine and minimalistically neat.
Martin Hutson supplies the other half of this odd couple, and is the perfect foil (or might we even say straight man) for West. We find out about this strange but compelling relationship throughout the play. We think they are just work colleagues – then we see Hutson resignedly straighten out Butley’s coat and hang it up, which feels distinctly domestic. By the time dirty socks start appearing from briefcases it is clear that this is not a straightforward relationship. A former protegé apparently living with Butley after his wife moves out, Keyston is everything Butley is not, acutely sensitive to any kind of embarrassment, young, ambitious and willing to compromise in life for the sake of stability. Hutson plays all this with great intensity and mines every comic moment for its full effect. Perhaps the most touching moment comes towards the end when Keyston can’t help collapsing in laughter at Butley’s antics even after he has helped to deal him the final blow.
These two characters are so strongly bonded that the play feels more like a two-hander with occasional cameo appearances from the other actors. Penny Downie as Edna provides particularly good support as the colleague Keyston is trying to keep sweet for the sake of his promotion. The confrontations between Butley and his wife, and later with Keyston’s lover Reg, seem more superfluous.
The fascination of this play comes in part from what is left unsaid. In an interview on the Alan Bates archive website Simon Gray talks about the speculation about the extent to which Butley and Keystone have a homosexual relationship, and explains that much of the original dialogue was cut. This may be what gives the play its sense of authenticity – we are left to try and work out what is going on by observation rather than exposition from the author, and the resulting wordplay and emotional game-playing is all the more powerful for it. Butley will never let us know how he really feels – he is too intent on drowning the pain with ‘fun’.
In an interview in the Metro, West comments on his success following from ‘The Wire’, and with laudable lack of pretension, expresses his gratitude for an opportunity that has made him a household name. With more performances like this, Jimmy McNulty may soon be just one in a long list of notable characters. And he’s certainly on a roll – next on the list is a TV dramatisation of Fred West.
And finally, how refreshing to hear about a theatre production starting earlier than expected, rather than making endless excuses about not being ready for opening night (witness the great debate about reviewing previews). According to the Evening Standard, this run started a day early, and the performance we saw was scheduled for the night that was meant to be the dress rehearsal. The high calibre of the acting, the quality of the play and the tight direction shone through – let’s hope this play’s run is extended into the future as well.