If anyone can deal with that tricksy genre – the comedy thriller – it’s playwright Alan Ayckbourn. And as if combining chuckles with tension weren’t enough, this sci-fi story of murder and time travel challenges the cerebellum as well. As Lindsey Posner’s studied revival of the 1994 play shows, Ayckbourn comes as close as anyone can to cracking such an ambitious juggling act.
As you’d expect, there’s plenty of running around rooms, the twist being that it’s one hotel suite at three different times. And while doors aren’t slammed, creeping around between the decades, with the threat of bumping into a murderer, provides a couple of good jumps. There’s a dominatrix call girl for laughs and an officious security guard (nicely paced by Matthew Cottle). Be patient with the comedy, as it gets stronger in the second half.
It’s fitting that only the women in the story can use the eponymous portals. Ayckbourn has written three fine roles for women that mischievously outshine the play’s male characters. The ruthless Reece (Robert Portal) and his henchman Julian (David Bamber) manage to be threatening, with Bamber’s toupee and dastardly laugh deserving their own credit in the programme, but it’s the women – working out time travel and taking control – that make the show.
Rachel Tucker’s tart-with-a-heart manages to be believably frightened and feisty by turns. Lucy Briggs-Owen and Imogen Stubbs play Harold’s former wives, both murdered, with suitable flashback appeal. Stubbs is particularly strong at carrying the scenario, with a no-nonsense approach aiding the surprisingly credible edge of this entertaining evening.
Until 27 June 2015
Photo by Manuel Harlan
Butley is in trouble. The eponymous anti-hero of Simon Gray’s play has left his wife, is being deserted by his friends, and his career as a university lecturer is full of petty politics and pesky students. Lindsey Posner’s impeccably directed production of this comedy classic is the West End’s funniest play. To use a critical cliché, the English tutor would no doubt condemn – it’s unmissable.
Butley has an egalitarian edge that makes him likeable – he’s nasty to everyone. His dowdy colleague Edna (the wonderful Penny Downie) has her high ideals about collegiate life mocked mercilessly. Anyone who has ever hated work will understand Butley’s boredom; his desperation makes him a mid-life everyman and his wit makes him adorable. He deserves to be punched – but you know he’d come back with a killer line.
Butley’s passion for his “creepy” prodigy and now colleague, Joseph, played with intelligent nuance by Martin Hutson, is flirtatiously ambiguous. It’s unconvincing that someone as brutally honest as Butley would be a repressed homosexual (text excised from performance makes this explicit) but love is at the heart of this couple’s relationship. As moving as it is entertaining, it makes Butley an original examination of male friendship.
Being friends with Butley is worth it. Manic, indolent, fey and mendacious, the title role is performed mercurially by Dominic West – this is a landmark performance for him. Gray’s creation is an Ambrose Bierce of the stage, yet West does him justice with a comic ability that makes the shocks, spills and laughter flow, just like the whisky Butley downs. Performance and play are something to celebrate – I’ll drink to them both.
Until 27 August 2011
Photo by Tristram Kenton
Written 13 June 2011 for The London Magazine