Butley, Duchess, London
The Government Inspector, Young Vic, London
Chicken Soup with Barley, Royal Court Downstairs, London

Even playing an academic, Dominic West can't avoid self-destruction and violence. He's the first of many big names to tread the boards this summer

Its allure and its kudos are, it would seem, irresistible.

The London stage is set to have star players jostling for position this summer, not least Kristin Scott Thomas (in Harold Pinter's Betrayal); Kevin Spacey (as Richard III); and Jude Law (in a lesser-known Eugene O'Neill at the Donmar). And last week Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh and Dominic West from The Wire were treading the boards too.

West plays the eponymous, acerbic and self-destructive university lecturer in Simon Gray's barbed comedy, Butley. Naive undergraduates, who presume West's whisky-swigging Butley is paid to teach them, are sent packing. He drops their essays in the bin like so many repugnant wet nappies, the better to concentrate on tormenting his protégé-turned-colleague, Joseph.

With Butley's wife having recently left him, the long-suffering Joseph (Martin Hutson) has, unwisely, become his flatmate as well as sharing his office in the English department.

Butley proclaims that winding people up is fun, but he's remorselessly derisive about Joseph's new boyfriend, Reg. And as he launches into homophobic jeers and sniggering disdain for Reg's Northern roots, it is clear that Butley is possessively jealous, too. So who will have the last laugh?

Lindsay Posner's production improves, even as our anti-hero behaves increasingly badly. The climactic showdown is riveting, when Butley's potential nemesis finally knocks at the door: Paul McGann's emotionally buttoned-down, quietly menacing Reg – ostensibly looking for Joseph.

The disappointment, overall, is that McGann's simmering rage and stealthly power-games are far more disturbing than all West's flamboyant bullying. On press night, at least, I felt at times that West was just going through the motions rather than investing his antics with a real depth-charge of despair.

It didn't help that the intellectuals' shared study failed to convince, with a schematic division between Butley's chaotically stacked books, stage left, and yards of bare shelves on Joseph's side – when he's meant to be assiduously ambitious.

Though informed by Gray's own academic career, this early Seventies play isn't his most brilliant. The Philanthropist, Christopher Hampton's portrait of a flailing don from the same decade, is more agonisingly funny.

In Nikolai Gogol's satirical farce, The Government Inspector (1836), a provincial mayor has been idling and pocketing bribes for years when he hears that an undercover investigator is in town, sent by the Tsar. Richard Jones's updated production certainly has comic timing, coinciding with the new anti-corruption drive proclaimed by Russia's current leaders. David Harrower's new English version is also fresh and colloquial.

Strange, then, that this staging has no political bite, opting instead for surreal silliness and trendy styling. Having cast Julian Barratt – a comedian – as the mayor, Jones tries to turn wooden acting into a shamateur, running joke. So Barratt rattles off his lines, turning out to the audience and just darting his eyes sideways as he tries to grease the palm of Kyle Soller's Khlestakov – a skint fop mistaken for the inspector.

The set and costumes are madly hip: a psychedelic medley of swirling Sixties wallpaper, tartan breeches and bobby sox, but this hardly feels morally fetid. Crucially, when the Mayor's serious abuses of power are revealed, the production barely darkens – ending with two motorised rats that merely raise a titter.

At the Royal Court, the revival of Chicken Soup with Barley is far more politically engaged. Arnold Wesker's intimate portrait of a Jewish, East End family falling apart also has epic sweep. It laments how communist ideals inspired euphoric hopes then how the reality, after the Second World War, brought devastating disappointment. We start with an animated gathering at the Kahns' spartan attic flat in 1936, as everyone gets ready to sally forth and fight the fascists in the Battle of Cable Street, encouraged by the feisty matriarch, Samantha Spiro's Sarah. By 1956, the younger generation, including Sarah's son Ronnie (newcomer Tom Rosenthal), has become bitterly disillusioned – shocked by Stalin's Soviet Union. A struggling writer, Ronnie is close to mental breakdown, with no cause to believe in any more, while Sarah sticks to her communist principles, refusing to be satisfied with a materialist culture, a "world where people don't think any more".

The play, penned by Wesker in his twenties and drawing on his own upbringing, builds rather too obviously to the big philosophical clash between mother and son. And I don't believe people really stand on chairs to declare their political opinions, in their own kitchens. However, Dominic Cooke's production is on the whole beautifully naturalistic; Danny Webb is poignant as Sarah's shiftless husband; and Rosenthal surely has a bright future.

'Butley' (0844 412 4659) to 27 Aug; 'The Government Inspector' (020-7922 2842) to 9 Jul; 'Chicken Soup with Barley' (020-7565 5000) to 9 Jul

Next Week:

Kate Bassett sees whether Shrek as a live musical can enchant its audience

Theatre Choice

James Corden is a blast in One Man, Two Guvnors, the NT's romping, 1960s update of Carlo Goldoni's farce, with skiffle band (to 26 Jul). Rupert Goold's audacious, clever Merchant of Venice, at Stratford-upon-Avon's RST, is set in a fantasy-tinged Las Vegas where Portia and her casket-guessing suitors star in a TV gameshow (to 26 Sep).

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