McELHONE – BUTTERFLY OR BUNNY-BOILER?
It is 27 years since James Dearden saw his film script explode into public consciousness, deify Michael Douglas as a hapless adulterer and Glenn Close as first holder of the now classic epithet “bunny-boiler”. He admits that from draft to draft the role of villain slid gradually towards Close, making Douglas the victim, and indeed the end got re-shot to blow her away. He fancied levelling things up now with this play, directed by Trevor Nunn.
So here as Dan is Mark Bazeley, fresh from Nunn’s last matrimonial doomfest Scenes from a Marriage. Kristin Davis is the smiley wife Beth who wants to move to the countryside, and the peerlessly foxy Natascha McElhone swirls a great blonde mane and killer red ciré heels as Alex, the psychotically needy urban-chic woman he picks up in a bar . And later wishes to God he could put down again.
It is updated to the new century in more ways than the obvious – and very helpful – fact that Alex can now persecute Dan not only by landline and turning up in his office and home but with mobile calls, texts, email and messaging. Bunny-boilers of today are well-armed indeed. The real update, though, is an attempted feminist consciousness, making more of the familiar complaints that selfish men take what they want, won’t commit, lie, never ring, abdicate responsibility and think abortion is easy. Sometimes this works, sometimes not.
Bazeley is great casting as Dan, lithe and narrow-headed as a particularly handsome stoat, and McElhone mostly manages the difficult task of jerking Alex – at one point in less than four minutes – from charm to violence, back to charm, then via self-harm to more aggression and finally pathos. Sometimes the script defeats her, as it would any actor. It is in less obvious moments that she flares into reality: her sudden glare of rage at being left asleep, and an electric shock of fury when Dan shouts “You poor, sad, twisted, lonely -” and she explodes on the word “lonely”. Her Madam Butterfly obsession is ramped up, the music swelling repeatedly. For Dearden, rather obviously, wants us to ask ourselves whether she is victim or vampire, nutter or Nemesis, bunny-boiler or Butterfly. And the endgame is different, more in tune with the feminist-Butterfly theme: some tellyish NYPD clichés get defused by a final tableau artfully designed to flatter our cultural sensibilities.
In style it owes much to film: Dan becomes a retrospective narrator, scenes are short. The setting is elegant: Robert Jones’ design of blue neon bars , projections and cool decor creates a restless Manhattan feeling, expertly enhanced by Nunn’s use of a wandering urban ensemble of barflies, straight and gay couples, stragglers, workers, passers-by who make the guilty Dan pause mid-sentence. There is a properly funny, Ayckbournish scene when Alex turns up pretending to be a buyer for the apartment and Kristin Davis deploys those happy-smiley-wholesome-trusting expressions we fondly remember as prologues to every romantic disaster when she was Charlotte in Sex and the City.
The rabbit gets it – of course it does, with decently brief and inexplicit horror and not before the entire audience (O, Britain! Britain!) has gone aaaaaah! at its sweet lop-ears. Rabbit and her understudy are interviewed in the programme, boasting of “nibbling on Sir Trevor’s denim”, which one hopes is not a euphemism.
box office 020 7930 8800 to 21 June