So I spent my Saturday night watching James McAvoy unicycling in nothing but a pair of y-fronts and some Cuban heels that Patrick Swayze would have loved. Wait… before you call the Daily Mail to report this scandal, it was all in the name of theatre. He also wore a monk’s habit, ripped off his shirt and tied himself to a cross before having a Jack the Ripper fantasy… I’m not making this any better am I? There were a few hundred other people there, it wasn’t just me! Before the gossip columnists come knocking I should probably explain that this all happened in his new play The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios where McAvoy plays Jack, the mad heir to the Lordship of Gurney.
Jack has spent years in an asylum suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, believing that he is God incarnate. When his father dies in less than salubrious circumstances without changing his will, Jack inherits the title and returns to the ancestral home, much to the annoyance of his Uncle Charles who wishes him permanently committed. Wary of a public scandal, the family conspire to marry Jack off to his uncle’s young mistress, Grace, in order to produce an heir, while giving Dr Herder free reign to try and restore Jack’s sanity. But sanity comes at a price and soon Jack’s harmless delusions take a darker turn with chilling consequences for the family whose stiff-upper-lips are put to the test.
As the title suggests this is all about class and particularly how playwright Peter Barnes feels the upper classes are out of touch with real life, living in a clubbable world of appearance, old-school ties and self-protection. The programme contains an essay on our fascination with class divide; whether that’s based on breeding, money, education or some other divisive tool. Society’s need to categorise and thereby denigrate others is a persistent one and the examples Andrew Anthony calls upon include TV reality shows and recent examples of politicians condescending to people they think are inferior such as taxi drivers or the police. Consequently, there is nothing likeable about the Gurneys here, they manipulate and conspire, have affairs and look down on their community, all of which make Jack’s early ease and freedom all the more appealing to the audience.
McAvoy is brilliant in a role that gives him a chance to display his range – and Jack is the only part that is really any more than a caricature. The first act takes us from Jack’s arrival as the God of Love in his Daz-white suit to his “cure”, and McAvoy plays him with a lightness and serene calm that is charming to watch. We also get to see an usual side to the actor – his comic timing which is so rarely used in his screen work; there’s a great moment when Uncle Charles in frustration shouts out “My God” and Jack pops his head around the door and innocently says “Yes” – hilarious. There are also quite a few utterly surreal song and dance routines which McAvoy handles with assurance.
The second half is a complete change of tone, considerably blacker than what has come before. Here Jack is trying to supress his moments of gibberish and act the part of the country squire, giving McAvoy a chance to display his abilities once again, beginning with quietly supressed frenzy and allowing it to grow and distort as the story unfolds. The great success of this performance is in making these two halves of Jack’s insanity seem part of the same man and convey a sense of outward authority that wins over his family and the community. Most of all, McAvoy looks like he’s having a great time and earned a rapturous standing ovation from the audience, which may have been for the unicycling alone!
The rest of the cast play their roles well even though the script gives them far less to do; Kathryn Drysdale’s cockney Grace Shelley was a little over the top even for this production in the first act, but was much better in the second. It was only the second night of the run so there’s still a long way to go yet. Serena Evans is great as Uncle Charles’s beleaguered wife Claire who is frustrated by her boring life and husband and is drawn to Jack’s freedom. The biggest laughs were reserved for Anthony O’Donnell however as long-serving Communist butler Tucker, who inherits £20,000 from his late master but stays to protect Jack. There’s quite an interesting parallel drawn between these two characters, both suddenly inherit money but neither cope – Jack because he is mad and Tucker because he drinks – but they are temporarily drawn together by their new-found status. Tucker also represents the perspective of the working-classes, dismissing the idiocy of his ‘betters’ and supporting their demise. It is most obviously through Tucker that we see the consequences of Jack toxicity, and O’Donnell is fantastic throughout.
Soutra Gilmour’s production design is very fitting, largely country shades of brown and green which makes Jack’s white suit all the more eye-popping, before he adopts more muted colours in Act Two. Transporting characters to the garden is cleverly done with sunflowers growing up through the set and unfolding, before neatly retracting the same way. And the House of Lords scene, complete with cobwebbed half-skeletons representing the Peers of the Realm was also a neat satire.
Overall then, this is a great production of a very strange play. It’s a caveat worth noting if you like your drama straight and linear; the individual characters don’t have much depth and there are some very bizarre delusion sequences which may not appeal to everyone. You should also note the rather thin seating in Studio One, a shame for a purpose built modern theatre, so you’re likely to be very cosy with your neighbouring strangers. But don’t let that put you off; this is a great revival full of hilarious moments and a really great central performance from James McAvoy. So, the first of the big five performances of 2015 has set the bar high and we’ll see in the coming months whether Mark Strong, Ralph Fiennes, Damien Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch can rise to the challenge, and if any of them is brave enough to face an audience in just their pants!
The Ruling Class is at The Trafalgar Studios until 11 April. Tickets start at £29.50, although £15 tickets for Mondays are released on 2nd of every month.
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