There is something of the over-sized man-child about Simon Gray’s depressed, malicious, antagonising lecturer Ben Butley.
In the hands of The Wire’s Dominic West, he bounds about the stage with the glee of a toddler who has just discovered he can go faster than his first-steps stumble, winding up his friends and colleagues with more panache and determination than a nine-year-old bully, forever seeking the attention of those around him as if needing to prove his very existence.
Butley, as may be evident by now, is not a nice character. Funny, undoubtedly, especially when, with a Graham Norton-esque glint in his eye and a grin reminiscent of a tiger who has just cornered his prey, he is in full aggravating flight. But endearing, loveable, even likeable he is not.
Yet West finds the deep sadness at the centre of his tormenting ways, briefly opening the door to the room of the soul in which he stores away the pain of a broken marriage, the loss of a friendship bordering on love and the realisation that he is not the great academic he wants to be.
West fizzes his way through the role, delighting in the banter and paining punnery of the professor whose world is collapsing. While he is always witty and charismatic, with strong support from the entire cast, the show’s stand out scene comes in the second half when he goes toe to toe with Paul McGann’s Reg, the man stealing away his best friend.
As their eyes lock, Peter McKintosh’s office set – Butley’s side littered with books and papers – seems to morph into a coliseum as the men ooze gladiatorial machismo; one a verbose emotional dynamo eager to push more buttons than a child at the Science Museum, the other quietly assured and unwilling to play a child’s silly games. It is a terrifically tense trial, highlighting exactly why, when all is said and done, this wizard of wit can never be happy until he grows up.