For obvious reasons the Whingers aren’t ones to hold mirrors up to themselves. The first time Phil tried it he accidentally cured Tennyson’s writer’s block, the last time Agatha Christie’s.
Unlike Butley the Whingers have neither wives nor have they spread their seed (but if they did they doubt they’d be able to remember their issue’s name either), they’re not steeped in academia and if they had even a soupçon of his alcohol-marinated, tartly cutting wit we’d they’d be deeply gratified. Low self-esteem? Let’s not go there. But the Whingers have been known to enjoy the odd tincture.
There shouldn’t be much for audiences to like in the disheveled, sometimes camp, sometimes pitiful university lecturer Ben Butley really then, but either it’s the performance or maybe it’s just the Whingers. Despite all his self-destructiveness Butley appears to be remarkably alive and appealing. Perhaps it’s because he seems to eschew his chosen subject T. S. Eliot in favour of Beatrix Potter, but we found ourselves rather liking him. We’re funny like that.
If there’s a single reason to drop into the Duchess then it’s West. He barely leaves the stage, which here convincingly portrays the dingy office (design Peter McKintosh) he shares with his former protégé, soon to be ex-lover Joseph (Martin Hutson – excellent) and is intermittently visited by students, a fellow lecturer, his estranged wife and Joseph’s new lover Reg. Butley does his best to scupper his exes moving on to their new partners. Everyone is abused. No wonder no one hangs around in his room for long. Even his Anglepoise lamp has turned against him.
If Simon Gray‘s 1971 play has the faintest whiff of coming from another age it may be partially down to being a slightly static, yet well-written, witty and literate piece smartly directed by Lindsay Posner but particularly due to the extravagance in its casting. Penny Downie‘s convincing Edna, who has had a student poached by Butley appears on and off throughout, but Amanda Drew as Butley’s wife Anne and Paul McGann as creepy Reg make tremendous impressions with little more than cameos in Acts 1 and 2 respectively.
Despite Butley’s slow awareness that his life is collapsing around him his humour never lets up. A reply to his offer of a drink “I don’t really drink” elicits his response “Then you’ll really enjoy it”.
Northern masculinity experiences his tongue with playful snobbery, he leaps around suggesting he may have invented hot desking and slips into a variety of very funny accents including one sounding uncannily like Simon Callow. The actor happened to be sitting a couple of rows in front of the Whingers. Phil leant forward to see if he recognised the tribute to him, sadly it was impossible to tell if he was appreciating the joke.
You really shouldn’t pass the Duchess on either side. Pity the poor understudy if he ever has to go on. This is West’s show and he’s utterly Butley.