Mariam Abdel-Razek is reflective and convincingJenny Sawyer

Butley is play about a university English professor and how, over the course of one day, his familiar world falls to pieces. Directed by Will Owen and produced by Lucia Revel-Chion, this production of Simon Gray's dark comedy is insidiously powerful.

The play takes place entirely in one space: the office Ben Butley shares with his “protégé”, a former student and now university professor called Joey. Two desks – one strewn with old student essays, whisky, newspapers and dusty books, and the other meticulously clean – are poised at right angles on the Corpus stage.

Ella Blackburn plays Butley, Gray's insolent, acerbic, and lonely main character. For any production of Butley to be successful the audience needs to care and be emotionally invested in Butley, despite his arrogance and the pain he inflicts on others. Ella Blackburn absolutely succeeds in this; her interpretation of Butley is, in spite of everything, endearing and cheeky. The play opens with the indolent Butley alone on stage eating a banana, with the loneliness and playfulness of a bored child. From the moment Blackburn tosses her banana peel and jacket across the stage, aiming for Joey's desk, the audience is on-board with the character, wincing as he ambles towards (metaphorical) self-destruction.

Bubbling below the surface of this play are questions about masculinity and sexuality

Despite all the hurt and defeatism, this production shrewdly and wittily pokes fun at university professors and academia with a sardonic, erudite humour in the tradition of Oscar Wilde. Butley deftly dispatches keen undergraduates arriving for their supervisions, claiming they “never run during the first week after the break” and says that time seems to move not according to GMT, but rather according to the languid, timeless time frame of academia – Edna, played by Amy Walpole, publishes her work on T. S. Eliot only after a twenty-year gestation period and Butley sardonically remarks that his thesis, also on T. S. Eliot, will be another twenty years in the making.  It is a cynical send-up of academic life that rings eerily close to the bone in Cambridge.


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The cast is entirely female, despite the fact that its main characters, Butley, Joey and Reg, are male. Bubbling below the surface of this play are questions about masculinity and sexuality, particularly homosexuality, and the gender-switching in this production brings all that to the fore. It is hard, as a member of the audience, to watch Butley slate homosexuals as “puffs” and “fairies” when it is so obvious that he himself has some deep homosexual yearning. Despite his academic intelligence, he appears blind, or perhaps willingly self-deceptive, in this regard. I was particularly impressed by Anna Bullard's honest, moving interpretation of Reg, the only outsider to the university. The audience viscerally feels his discomfort as Butley provokes him with his waspish entitled humour, mocking Reg's Yorkshire accent and cultural differences. Likewise, Mariam Abdel-Razek's portrayal of the timorous, hesitant Joey is reflective and convincing; she manages to convey both her character's love and affection for Butley and his need to distance himself from Butley's needy, exasperating and hurtful personality.

This is a scabrous, deeply affecting and thoughtful production that I would absolutely recommend watching.

Butley is on at the Corpus Playroom until 26 May

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