Butley, Brighton Festival: Theatre Royal

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The Independent Culture

Forty years ago Simon Gray wrote a play about a hard-drinking, venomously cruel English professor in the midst of a crisis. Directed by Harold Pinter and starring Alan Bates, Butley was his first big hit, swiftly transferring to Broadway and later being turned into a film. That it has since been neglected by directors has been attributed to Bates's indelible performance, though watching Lindsay Posner's revival, starring The Wire's Dominic West, you suspect there are other reasons why it has been given a wide berth.

The play is set in the drab office that the eponymous professor shares with his protégé and assistant lecturer, Joey Keyston (Martin Hutson). Butley despises his students, his book on T S Eliot has stalled and his marriage has collapsed. Now, his friendship with Keyston hangs by a thread. They are an odd couple: Butley the lazy, bitter, lonely academic whose love of literature has narrowed to compulsive recitals of nursery rhymes, and Joey the peacemaker accustomed to cleaning up after his friend, but increasingly ready to let him drown in his own bile.

West flits between neediness and bloody-mindedness, a man who longs for the company of friends yet when they show concern ridicules them. While he is slow to reveal the misery and madness at the heart of his character, he delivers Gray's whizzy one-liners with palpable glee.

It's a shame, then, that it's these one-liners that threaten to drag the play down. Shortly before his death, Gray remarked on seeing Butley in New York and noticing for the first time a seam of misogyny. He wasn't wrong. When Butley remarks about Anne, his soon-to-be ex-wife: "She was always succinct, even with her knickers down," you flinch rather than giggle, while his repeated damning of his newly-published colleague Edna as "that bloody woman" provokes a similar reaction.

Butley's troubled sexuality – his jealousy over Joey hints at a previous affair – is handled with marginally more sensitivity, his arch reflections on the word "queer" holding a mirror to his own monstrousness. It's no wonder that self-knowledge never seems to arrive for Butley. Even at the close, when friends and family have deserted him, he doesn't look ready to shoulder the blame just yet.

Ends tomorrow (01273 709 709); then Duchess Theatre, London WC2 (0844 579 1973) 31 May to 27 August