There are productions that arrive and immediately all you hear is glowing praise from all who see it, making your expectations even higher in the run up to seeing it yourself. The new play in the second Trafalgar Transformed season, The Ruling Class, was certainly such a production. Was it really as brilliant as everyone was saying? Was it really as bonkers? In short, yes it was on both counts and so much more too.
Peter Barnes’ play, written in 1968 (and not seen in London since its premiere in 1969), begins with the unfortunate and admittedly rather darkly amusing death of the Earl of Gurney. As the family fear for the future of the estate, his title and wealth passes to his son Jack (James McAvoy), whose questionably stable personality drives the family to desperately try and work out how to remove him from his inheritance, no matter what levels of plotting they have to stoop to. The source of their concern – Jack, a paranoid schizophrenic, has been voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric facility for the last seven years and seems to genuinely believe he is the son of God (but you can call him “JC”). He cannot possibly inherit the name and wealth of the Gurneys – or can he?
I genuinely did not know what to expect before I saw the play and I don’t think I could have even imagined what I was about to experience even if I had known more about it. Through the course of the play there are moments of brilliantly timed comedy and utter farce, as well as a growing darker turn of events as Barnes’s play pokes fun at the upper classes, as we see Jack journey from paranoid schizophrenic to attempting to be “normal”, which in this aristocratic world, may seem equally insane and frankly disturbing to the rest of us!
There are some wonderful supporting performances on display, including Ron Cook as Jack’s scheming uncle, Joshua McGuire as his moronic cousin Dinsdale and Kathryn Drysdale as his uncle’s mistress Grace Shelley, roped in to marry Jack (who technically thinks they are already married – yes it’s that bonkers!). I also loved the double act of Forbes Masson and Paul Leonard, who in parts play two local busy bodies, thrown in to the crazy life of the Gurneys. However, the most hilarious has to be Anthony O’Donnell, who plays long-serving butler Daniel Tucker, who cannot contain his utter disgust at the family he has dedicated his life to serving and his reaction and subsequent behaviour after inheriting some money from the late Earl is absolutely hilarious!
This is however James McAvoy’s show and his performance is simply spectacular. As Jack he is required to give so much, emotionally and physically. Through the production he is doing everything from leaping on and off a giant cross, riding around on a unicycle in very little clothing, writhing around, breaking in to a song and dance routine, in many cases literally screaming out his dialogue at the same time, conveying Jack’s roller coaster of a personality, which grows ever darker, the more “normal” he is deemed to become. As an audience you simply cannot take your eyes and attention off him for a second, for fear of missing another moment of brilliance. This really is a masterclass in acting as McAvoy displays incredible versatility in the role. I felt absolutely exhausted by the end, so goodness knows how he must feel!
You may well leave The Ruling Class slightly disorientated and unsure whether the last two hours really did happen – the play is that bonkers. However, it’s certainly a brilliantly directed and acted production, which is unlike anything else on the London stage and it is a must-see for McAvoy’s performance alone, which will certainly be hard to beat during the rest of 2015. Do everything you possibly can to acquire a ticket for this before it finishes (yes, calling the box office or queuing for a return really is worth it).
The Ruling Class runs at the Trafalgar Studios until 11th April. Although the run is sold out, it is certainly worth checking for returns online or on the day at the box office, by phone or better still in person. Also, tickets for Monday 6th April’s performance will go on sale on 2nd April at 10 a.m. for just £15 each. More information can be found on the production’s website here.