Having seen a few rather pedestrian, slightly flabby plays recently, watching Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Ruling Class was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over me and every bit as refreshing, exhilarating and – at times – uncomfortable.
Diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with a messiah complex, Jack (James McAvoy) has been hidden away in a mental health institution for many years where he was treated by a Dr Herder (Elliot Levy). Following the death of his father in a rather 1990s MP style accident, Jack inherits the title of 14th Earl of Gurney and much to the annoyance of his family – notably his uncle, the ghastly Sir Charles Gurney (a brilliantly terse Ron Cook), Jack checks himself out of hospital determined to throw himself into his new role.
Shadowing him is Herder who believes he can cure Jack before his family disinherit this mad upstart. The play riffs off the similarity between an entitled a member of the ruling classes with a seat in the House of Lords and a paranoid schizophrenic whose messiah complex marks him out as unwell when his symptoms are strikingly like those he shares a house and a House with.
With a play as frenetic and as politically charged as Peter Barnes‘, no director could approach The Ruling Class with timidity. Jamie Lloyd, whose Trafalgar Transformed series has proved he’s not afraid to turn the theatrics up to 11, approaches The Ruling Classes with the required gusto. Equally as committed is James McAvoy as Jack Gurney whose performance is one of the best – and bravest – I’ve seen on stage. He’s very well supported by a brilliant cast particularly Anthony O’Donnell as the once trusty now mostly tipsy butler Tucker, but the production is McAvoy’s who even manages to convince during the balmier and borderline toe curling music hall moments.
Another star is Barnes’ script which is astonishingly dexterous. He threads through the themes and changes in tone to the narrative with an ease that defies the rapid pace and the subject matter which is far more searing than the comedy of the play lets on. For all the play’s radicalness – and I can presume it was particularly radical in 1968 – Barnes’s writing is peppered with Shakespearean and Biblical references that are added to the stew of theatrical influences of music hall and Ealing comedies.
The production is fittingly insane and gets even more surreal the better Jack gets. I found it eyeliner ruiningly funny, even the obvious jokes had me giggling (I saw an Etonian buffoon talking LOUDLY and sloooowly to the foreign Helder, but still laughed like a loon). And while there was a charming surrealism to The Ruling Class, it’s grounded in its political agenda and Barnes doesn’t flinch from his criticism of a morally bankrupt upper class and the profiteering of those at the top at the expense of people further down the class chain. This play may have been written in the 1960s, but it highlights the huge divide between the Haves and Have-Nots that is more relevant today than it has been for years.
Unsurprisingly, Jamie Lloyd’s production has proven a divisive one; I can see how people could be squeamish to its frantic pace, unsubtle political message and the play’s more surreal moments that, at one point, see McAvoy unicycling in his pants. This production chucks it all at you and you either enjoy the jolt or you recoil. I relished every caustic slap. by Suzanne Elliott The Ruling Class | Trafalgar Studios | Until 11th April