Review: Butley

Arthur Tan 23 May 2018


Simon Gray’s Butley sells itself as a “dark comedy [that] explores the real dangers of toxic masculinity through the study of one day in the life of a flailing academic”. The Mighty Players bring to the Corpus Playroom an all-female version that (beauti)fully exploits the nuances of Gray’s wordplay – and note that ‘all-female’ is not meant as a prescription of identity, but as an explication of how the production reads to a viewer. The audience is presented with a collection of complex – but, to students at least, familiar – host of characters, from the timid junior lecturer Joey (Mariam Abdel-Razek) to the self-absorbed senior academic, our eponymous protagonist, Ben Butley (Ella Blackburn).

The ‘real dangers’ of Butley’s ‘toxic masculinity’ lie in his highly manipulative and narcissistic nature, his goading smugness, his alcoholism, his refusal to fulfil his responsibilities as an educator as he shuttles instead towards self-destruction, and in both his ex-wife and his ex-lover’s inability to love anyone other than him. Butley may be abusive but, it is stressed, he is fun and clever. Cleverer than the overenthusiastic students he must teach, cleverer than both his helpless ex-wife and his timid ex-lover, cleverer than his ex-lover’s new husband, cleverer than his ex-wife’s new fiancé. The script is designed to emphasise Butley’s self-aware cleverness, and so his gratuitous outbursts of vulnerability fall short every time.

The action unfolds in a single room on a single day, and so the production demands, more than a more diverse script would, well-considered staging, lighting, and costume. The show is staged with only two desks, a single bookshelf (on Joey’s side), and some scattered books (on Butley’s side) – each element carefully chosen to signify chaotic brilliance and self-disciplined mediocrity respectively.

Each desk holds a lamp, symbols of independence as well as the above. Joey insists on keeping his own lamp (despite its blown-out bulb) rather than accept his ex-roommate/ex-lover’s (that lamp works perfectly well). At another point, the tube lights above flicker to signal the final breaths of Butley’s failing personal relationships. Lighting, then, is mostly well done, but be warned about the PAR lights that just might blind you, one pointing towards each side of the audience to ensure discomfort for all.

Costuming is true to how many academics dress, and the symbolism of Butley’s dirty socks on his lover/victim’s side of their shared office alongside the lover/victim’s clean socks on Butley’s feet, almost make up for the inevitable prevalence of wrinkled shirts and round eyeglasses.

The script is delivered with perfect timing and one does not need to sympathise with Butley to enjoy his wit. As an added bonus, lack of sympathy does add an element of guilt-free schadenfreude to the jokes told at his expense. Characters are well-casted, the actors’ skill levels consistently good, and Abdel-Razek’s Joey particularly noteworthy. Overall, this show is worth a watch.