The petty, brilliant university tutor Ben Butley (Alan Bates) is festering in his own bile in a hope-forsaken corner of Cambridge University’s English department.
Butley is a disintegrating soul, frantically knotting himself together with alcohol and words. It is with words that he tries to control his world and being alone is what he fears most.
He worries when his friend Tom doesn’t call. His colleague and flatmate Joey (Richard O’Callaghan) is surprised: “I thought you found his company intolerable”. Butley agrees. “But one likes, as they say, to be asked.
Also one likes people to be consistent, otherwise one will start coming adrift. At least this one will. Also, how does one know whether Tom is still the most boring man in London unless he phones in regularly to confirm it?”
The playwright Simon Gray won the Evening Standard Best Play award for Butley, having created a character whose verbal coups elicit in the audience a mix of pity, admiration, affection and rage.
The play’s searing attack on academia is all the more effective for the twists and turns of Ben Butley which pull our allegiance between him and the various pitiable, pompous or naive students and staff who pass through the office.
Butley does his best to fend off the intruders. In his self-written play of life, he wants only interesting characters who obey their assigned roles. Tedious students demanding tutorials are to be avoided at all costs.
Butley: “Good morning. Good morning”.
Student: “I just wanted to find out about my tutorials”.
Butley: “Good. Good. Have you got an essay, please?”
Student: “Well, no. I mean, you haven’t set one”.
Butley: “Well, do me one for next week, all right?:
Student: “Well, what on?”
Butley: “You must decide for yourself. Can’t expect spoon-feeding. Righto, I think that’s the lot”.
But on the day the play takes place, some of the assigned characters in his personal life are on the run. Joey, who was a protege and is still an obsession of Butley’s, is trying to escape the confines of Butley’s desperate world. He has a male lover to move in with, as does Butley’s estranged wife, Anne (Susan Engel).
Butley circles his rubbish-strewn office, addressing the world in nursery rhymes and flinging out scintillating abuse at those who are forsaking him.
There is little joy to be found in the state of Butley, but much joy to be found in the play’s script and production.