Thursday, 12 February 2015

Theatre review: The Ruling Class

Jamie Lloyd opened his first Trafalgar Slightly Rearranged season with James McAvoy, and now he ends the second with him as well. Rather than a tried-and-tested Shakespeare though, this time it's for a class satire that's languished in obscurity for decades. It's no surprise on seeing it, though, that Lloyd managed to lure his leading man back, as Peter Barnes' The Ruling Class features the kind of role that most actors only dream of getting to play. When the 13th Earl of Gurney dies in an auto-erotic asphyxiation accident, his title, property and seat in the House of Lords pass to his only surviving son. But Jack (McAvoy) is a paranoid schizophrenic with a god complex, who's spent the last 7 years in a mental hospital. Now he has to be seen in public again, and those fighting for control of his estate have to wonder if his behaviour can be passed off as mere aristocratic eccentricity.

Chief among those plotting against Jack is his uncle Charles (Ron Cook,) who even marries his nephew off to his mistress Grace (Kathryn Drysdale) in the hope of providing an heir he can control.

The Ruling Class is an unusual play, broadly comic with characters regularly breaking the fourth wall or breaking into music-hall numbers. Serena Evans is Jack's oversexed aunt, Lady Claire, Elliot Levey a psychiatrist on the verge of cracking up himself, and Anthony O'Donnell the faithful family retainer who's developed a habit of talking back to his masters ever since coming into some money himself. Forbes Masson, meanwhile, crops up as everyone from a psychiatrist happy to declare Jack sane because they both went to Eton, to a scandalised old lady.

It's McAvoy, though, who more than justifies his star billing as the amiably dotty lord; Barnes has provided him with a strong script, particularly in the many funny lines where Jack casually drops the fact that he's Jesus into casual conversation, which he carries off with aplomb. But it's his physicality which is downright extraordinary, whether throwing himself around the stage, crucifying himself, riding a unicycle on his wedding night or even managing to produce a convincing bump when Jack has a sympathetic pregnancy. The play's oddity could mean it was in danger of being annoying, but McAvoy's charisma and likeability mean there's never any risk of that.

Christopher commented during the interval that he was surprised at how much the satire seemed to be going after religion itself. But the expected targets of class and politics certainly get their turn in the second act, which does keep much of the comedy but gives it a much darker edge. Jack's lovable incarnation as the god of love was a cause for concern, but when his delusions turn violently demonic (Soutra Gilmour's design taking on a Hammer Horror feel) nobody even notices there's anything wrong. Sadly The Ruling Class barely feels like a period piece - the hereditary peerage may be gone but the play also offers up Jack's cousin Dinsdale (Joshua McGuire) who, not being trusted to do anything important, has been packed off into politics.

The only real downer tonight was the venue itself: Trafalgar 1 has always been notoriously uncomfortable, and overheating has always been a problem (I've seen more audience members faint there than any other theatre bar the Globe.) Tonight though the heat was almost unbearable - one of the biggest compliments I can pay the production is that it made us stay in our seats despite desperately wanting to get out for some air. When Jamie Lloyd first started making a name for himself, the pace of his productions was one of the things that always struck me, and while it's not always been the case in recent years that breathless pace is back with a vengeance here. It means that, although it could probably have done with some minor cuts, The Ruling Class is full of enough comic, clever, sometimes vicious life to just about overcome the unpleasant venue it's playing in.

The Ruling Class by Peter Barnes is booking until the 11th of April at Trafalgar Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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