The Ruling Class


Second-or-third rate productions of first-rate plays are, regrettably, an all too common occurrence in London at the moment. What are rather rarer phenomena are first-rate productions of second-rate plays. In the case of Peter Barnes’s 1968 satire, The Ruling Class, director Jamie Lloyd and star James McAvoy unite after their acclaimed 2013 staging of Macbeth to do more than justice to a difficult, sometimes brilliant but eventually flawed play; the suspicion lingers that perhaps their, and the excellent supporting cast’s, talents might have been better utilised on stronger material.

Although it hasn’t been revived since its premiere, Barnes’s play has crept into popular culture thanks to a memorably mad 1972 film adaptation, starring Peter O’Toole as Jack, an instutionalised paranoid schizophrenic who, after his father’s death in an inadvertent auto-asphyxiation accident, inherits his title against his snobbish family’s wishes and becomes the 14th Earl of Gurney. Little has changed on stage, and the revue-style staging (featuring everything from topless unicycling to random song ‘n’ dance numbers) is, by turns, bitingly caustic, enjoyably broad and a trifle tiring. At two and a half hours, there are some longeurs, and the overall point – that the upper classes are barking mad underneath a veneer of sophistication – isn’t going to strike anyone in 2015 as a startling dart of originality.

What makes this an unmissable evening for all the subject matter’s faults is the excellence of the production. Especially in the first half, McAvoy seems to be having an inordinate amount of fun as Jack, as he believes himself to be ‘JC’, or the God of Love; adopting a suitably plummy upper-class accent, he is as charming and charismatic as he is clearly a few lobsters short of a banquet. McAvoy has been very strong in several films over the past few years, but this top-notch performance shows that he’s still got what it takes to be one of our greatest stage actors. He’s more than helped by some fine actors including Anthony O’Donnell as the drunken communist butler who inherits a legacy and begins to speak truth unto power, Joshua McGuire as the blithering idiot who is standing as a Conservative candidate in a by-election and Forbes Masson in a variety of vivid small parts, most memorably a Master of Lunacy who bonds with Jack upon their discovering that they are both Old Etonians.

Lloyd, who must be one of the busiest directors in London, keeps the pace going, and it isn’t until the end that the cynicism and grimness of the play threatens to overwhelm the (often big) laughs. Not a million miles away from Laura Wade’s play Posh in many regards (itself indifferently filmed last year), it is at least topical at a time when sex scandals again threaten royalty, when a looming general election might again see an Etonian cabal running the country and when the divide between rich and poor seems as great as it has ever been. Yet, at the risk of doing down what is a very accomplished production, one wonders if we really needed this revival, something that, in its own way, now resembles a quaint museum piece rather than the urgent anger that it expressed nearly half a century ago.

The Ruling Class runs until 11th April 2015 at the Trafalgar Studios. For more information and tickets, visit the website.