The first West End performance of Peter Barnes’ cult play since its premiere in 1968, Trafalgar Studios’ production of The Ruling Class is a frenzied, whirling couple of hours, helmed by the transcendental James McAvoy in the part he may well have been born to play.
There has been a lot of talk around the modern political relevance of this production and the programme does not shy away from this, including a two page spread dedicated to class in a millennial world. Some things may have changed since Barnes first wrote the play, but the angry anti-immigration rants of Sir Charles Gurney (Ron Cook), and, later, Jack (McAvoy) sound all too familiar.
The play opens with a monologue from the 13th Earl of Gurney (Paul Leonard), a delightfully grumpy speech full of raised superior eyebrows and lofty declarations. It has a decidedly Young Ones-esque vibe (something also seen in Joshua McGuire’s performance as Dinsdale Gurney), but the kind of biting satire that that programme was so known for is unfortunately not quite carried through in the Earl’s death scene, which is too over-the-top to be truly effective.
Despite strong performances from the rest of the cast, especially Kathryn Drysdale and Serena Evans (Grace Shelley, Lady Claire Gurney) McAvoy’s captivating turn as Jack, the schizophrenic 14th Earl, overshadows everything else. He flits between charismatic, serpentine and wrathful – with a detour to genuine terror and grief – and back again, with seemingly no effort. There is a scene close to the end where he utters nothing but nonsense words for several minutes and still manages to be genuinely gripping, the trembling emotion of his delivery keeping the audience on the edges of their seats.
There is almost no delineation between the inside of Jack’s mind and the real world. The set reflects this beautifully: dying sunflowers rise from the parqueted floors as Jack’s mind deteriorates further, and smoke billows across the stage as he imagines himself in Victorian London. The fast-paced dialogue, bizarre musical breaks and farcical physical comedy add to this feeling of fracturing boundaries and sanity. Jack’s occasional breaking of the fourth wall reinforces this, and as the second act takes a decidedly darker turn the audience’s knowledge of events makes them feel complicit – as, Barnes suggests, we are all complicit in the upholding of class structure.
Even Tucker (Anthony O’Dowell), the ineffectually communist butler, fails to stop the degeneracy of the upper class. He is merely a comedic foil to the spinning darkness of Jack’s descent, until he, too, falls victim to Jack. Jack’s madness – so roundly condemned in the first act when it was based around love and kindness – becomes socially acceptable once it is founded in revenge and prejudice. It is not subtle, but nor does it need to be. Frantic renditions of the school song, cobwebbed peers in the House of Lords – Barnes’ text and Jamie Lloyd’s direction question where the line of madness really lies. Is it in the tortured brain of Jack, or is it in the society that fosters such sentiments and does nothing to stop the horrifying consequences of such an upbringing?