The Ruling Class, theatre review: James McAvoy is brilliant as the Earl with the Messiah complex

This production of Peter Barnes's 1968 comedy at Trafalgar Studio 1 is excellent

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The Independent Culture

James McAvoy delivers a performance of brilliant antic bravura as the Earl with the Messiah complex in Jamie Lloyd's full-blast production of Peter Barnes's 1968 black comedy.

Though the movie version with Peter O'Toole enjoys cult status, this is the first time the play has been revived in the West End since its premiere. The creative team rightly maintain that the swingeing satiric attack on the Establishment – aristocracy, public schools, army, church, House of Lords – has become freshly topical with the resurgence in Britain of class privilege. 

Wisely, however, Lloyd – who recently gave us a Richard III relocated to the 1970s – has not been tempted to update the proceedings. The Ruling Class is, in spirit and feel, very much a product of the Sixties counter-culture and you sometimes get a strong whiff of Joan Littlewood-meets-Joe-Orton from its mix of anarchic bursts of music hall and saucy, subversively epigrammatic farce. You also get premonitions of Monty Python. The production animates the requisite performance style with terrific, going-for-broke gusto.

The play begins as it means to continue –  with the accidental death from auto-erotic asphyxiation, while kitted out in cocked hat and tutu, of the 13th Earl of Gurney. To the horror of the hidebound clan, the heir Jack returns from a 7-year voluntary stay in a clinic convinced that he is the New Testament God of Love and preaching a gospel of equality and sexual liberation.  McAvoy gives the mad mercuriality of the Earl a superb magnetism – the mood switches always unnerving as he is, by turns, the urbane smiling charmer, casually stepping down from his custom-built cross for a tea-time muffin, the cracked visionary, and the tormented soul convulsively fighting against reality.  Whether he's leading a jaunty rendition of “Varsity Drag” or careering round the bedroom on a unicycle in his underpants, this is a stellar portrayal of derangement. 

The two-act structure underlines the main point: that Jack becomes acceptable to the scheming family once he's cured and does a psychic somersault, starting to subscribe to the values of the Old Testament God of Vengeance.  These are much more in accord with their own hanging-and flogging morality. If anything, McAvoy is even more impressive as his character starts to identify, chillingly, with another Jack – Jack the Ripper.  No, you can't accuse the play of subtlety or even-handedness but its dark gleeful excess has a contagious brio.  It's a show that last 2 hours 40 minutes and ends with an ermined Jack making his maiden speech in a grotesquely mouldering and cobwebbed House of Lords full of skeletal peers.  I'm far from certain, though, that less would be more. 

The cast are uniformly excellent – especially Anthony O'Donnell who is hilarious as as the butler (and closet Marxist) who is left  £20 000 takes to drink and to speaking his squiffy mind, and Forbes Masson in a battery of roles including a batty sanity inspector who ishappy, after a boisterous rendition of the “Boating Song”, to declare a fellow-Etonian fit for purpose. Plus ca change?

To April 1; 0845 505 8500

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