Theatre Review: Dominic West stars in Butley

True force of personality propels The Wire’s Dominic West in a compelling stage production of BUTLEY.

Actor Dominic West became something of a phenomenon playing all-American cop Jimmy McNulty in The Wire - and his latest stage outing does nothing to quell the fire.

Staring as ailing, obnoxious and arrogant university lecturer Ben Butley, West’s character struggles with a marriage break-up, latent homosexuality and alcoholism in Simon Gray’s firecracker of a play. The action is set in a dimly-lit, book-laden university office where Butley and his mildly-infuriated protege Joey (Martin Hutson) engage in a power struggle of menace and metaphor.

Light-footed West performs massive chunks of monologue with amazing verbal dexterity. His slightest tempo change ripples out ominously and he uses accent with a chameleon-like quality truly his own - moving up and down operatic octaves of accent rather than nailing it. But somehow he pulls it off in a style all his own.

The play is set in an era of university life sadly waning, but its language is a joy. Snippets of snarling rage rumble into melodic metaphor and crescendos of heartbreaking clarity about a man whose life repeats itself with ever diminishing climaxes.

Penny Downie, as Byron-loving lecturer Edna, performs the most poignant scene about the destructive futility of backward longing, while Paul McGann as brooding northerner Reg Nuttall brilliantly spars with Butley for control of Joey.

West’s charisma is obviously catching as even for a West End opening this was star-studded. An inspired performance from an actor with true force of personality.

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* Showing at the Duchess Theatre in Catherine Street, WC2, until August 27.