REVIEW: The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studios ✭✭✭✭

James McAvoy and Kathryn Drysdale in The Ruling Class at Traflagar Studios
James McAvoy and Kathryn Drysdale in The Ruling Class. Photo: Johan Persson

The Ruling Class
Trafalgar Studios Transformed
24 January 2015
4 Stars

When writing about his experience of the original production of Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class (Nottingham Playhouse, 1968) revered theatre critic Harold Hobson opined:

prudently, I had expected nothing, and overwhelmingly I was given all: wit, pathos, exciting melodrama, brilliant satire, double-edged philosophy, horror, cynicism and sentiment, all combined in a perfect unity in the theatrical world of Mr Barnes’ extraordinary and idiosyncratic creation…At a time when a great deal of theatrical energy is concentrated on forcing plays which no one wants to see on the sort of audiences that do not want to see any play at all it came as an immense delight to discover a drama which was not only thoughtful, but also exciting and amusing…all through the play one has the delightful thrill, which one felt had gone from the theatre for ever, of actually feeling that one wants to know what is going to happen next.

Clearly, the play itself was the star of the evening then.

Now playing at Trafalgar Studios Transformed, as part of Jamie Lloyd’s second season in the venue, is Lloyd’s revival of The Ruling Class.

Now, the star – unquestionably – is James McAvoy.

Not just the star of the production, but a true, blistering, white-hot star who lights up every moment he is on stage, whose smile and darting, impressive eyes can say whatever he wants them to say; utterly mercurial, hilarious, and wild one moment, malevolent and disturbed in the next, then sad or insane or calculating or sexy – or all of those at once.

From the moment he appears on stage, covered in the drab robes of a monk, a wave of expectation floods the audience. Then, he throws off the cowl and declares himself to be…God. And a God of Love at that. He looks directly into the audience, eyes blazing, smile compelling and the sheer magnetic power of his presence is quite astonishing. He is utterly believable as a God – he has never looked better or been more overwhelmingly appealing.

This is a break-through performance from McAvoy (who was no slouch as Macbeth or as one of the leads in Three Days Of Rain) and one that makes this production unmissable. It is almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the present generation of actors doing what McAvoy does here as the 14th Earl of Gurney – astonishingly detailed and accomplished work of the highest order.

In 1968, The Ruling Class must have been shocking in some ways and startlingly provocative in others. It is vitriolic about the Upper Classes in England, including the Church and the medical profession. There is an Earl who likes to cross-dress and self-asphyxiate, his-half brother who is as cantankerous as he is greedy, that man’s wife who is a nymphomaniac, their son who is a self-entitled tosser with an eye on Parliament, a bishop with little sense of what is holy or Christian, a Doctor with a bedside manner not quite in keeping with the Hippocratic oath, a gold-digger who will sleep with anyone for money and status – as well as the deranged heir to the Earl’s estate.

It’s a seething mass of human foibles, lust and superiority, which bubbles constantly and erupts into steamy incandescence every now and then. Canapés and casual murder go hand in hand in this rarefied world.

It shows, clearly and decisively, how corrupt and dysfunctional Barnes thinks the “establishment” in the UK is and how swimming against the tide leads only to either drowning or, eventually and dishearteningly, getting in the canoe. This is most clear in the final scene, with the House of Lords in cobwebbed status; dead, old, dusty figures presiding over a malignant body, with McAvoy’s rictus-grinning, reformed Earl making his maiden speech.

But, unlike Cleopatra, age has withered the notions the play seeks to lampoon: in the decades that have passed, Barnes’s pen has proved to be prophetic and revelatory – many of the bizarre things that happen in the plot are, by now, things with which all are all too familiar from endless confessions, investigations, inquiries, court cases and media reports.

Equally, some lines now resonate differently than they would have in the pre-Saville Inquiry days:

“Dr Herder: Then, of course, he never forgot being brutally rejected by his mother and father at the age of eleven. They sent him away, alone, into a primitive community of licensed bullies and pederasts.

Sir Charles: You mean he went to public school.”

But, like a gifted ringmaster, Lloyd keeps the clowns tumbling and the trapeze high-wire act of razor sharp satire zipping: the pacing, energy and style is finely honed. Oddly, there are some stage pictures which look more like bus queues than carefully staged groups of actors, but Soutra Gilmour’s exquisite set easily distracts from such petty irritations.

Gilmour solves the multi-location narrative in interesting ways. When the new Earl, mad as a hatter, goes into his garden, sunlight floods the stage (which still contains the tip-top-what-ho stately home interior of the Earl’s estate, complete with deer heads, padded leather furniture, and stately brocade drapes) and from below the stage, through small holes which have hitherto been all Amos Hart, come single stems of tall, in-bloom sunflowers. It’s magical – and their disappearance back into their tiny passages even more so when the scene completes.

At another point, a flat suddenly slides away at the rear of the stage and the audience is transported to the foggy, gloomy, fear-charged streets of Whitechapel. Yes, McAvoy’s Earl might just be Jack The Ripper in his spare time.

Jon Clark provides effective and interesting lighting effects which make the most of Gilmour’s set. The musical moments are especially well handled (Huw Evans as Musical Director, Darren Carnall as Choreographer) and are unexpected sweet treats. Richard Mawbey does great work with wigs (especially for Mrs Piggott-Jones and Mrs Treadwell, either of whom believably could have lived in Mrs Slocum’s street). Incidental music from Ben and Max Ringham enhances every moment.

This is a beautiful and ingeniously thought through revival of a major work from one of the UK’s most prolific, but overlooked, dramatists. Which makes the defects in casting all the more puzzling and frustrating.

Those one-schtick ponies, Joshua Maguire and Elliot Levey, are as tiresomely predictable as ever. But their roles call for greater nuance than either is capable of achieving. Maguire cavorts, tosses his head and swishes indignantly as Dinsdale, which is all well and good, but different choices would have made for funnier, more affecting drama. Petulance is no substitute for intelligence.

Levey is all pinch-lipped, clipped-sound, mostly emotion-less, clinical practitioner of medicine. This gets by at first, but as the play progresses and Dr Herder’s story moves on, Levey is quite incapable of the challenges. He has to mimic the work McAvoy has done in conveying the suppression of a feral madness that wants to force its way out of subjugation and he can’t. The scene where he finally loses it, succumbing to hysteria, is high-school embarrassing.

Ron Cook makes a serviceable Sir Charles, but he is not sufficiently blustery really to get the full effect of the part across. There is not sufficient under-the-skin, boiling exasperation at the temerity of those who might challenge him. Still, he is responsible for a marvellous moment of magical stage business when he drops the Earl’s crown. To be fair to him, if McGuire and Levey gave him proper support, his task would be easier.

As his wife, Lady Claire, Serena Evans, rightly, chooses to sail in her own Gurney waters. Like a battleship, she powers on regardless, and to great effect. She is totally believable as the quite unbelievable, entitled aristocrat whose appetites are varied and usually sated as she pleases. She is elegant, ghastly and voracious in equal measure. Glorious.

Anthony O’Donnell is just terrific as the Earl’s manservant, Tucker, who hates the family but who sticks around because he can (plot twist) and because the family can’t afford to cut him loose knowing the secrets he knows about their cupboards chock-full of skeletons. He revels in the silly joy the part offers and never flags.

Having the best time of all, one suspects, are Forbes Masson and Paul Leonard, who each play multiple roles to great comic effect. Masson, in particular, is astonishing at creating completely new and unrelated characters – his archetypal lawyer, Matthew Peake, bears no resemblance to his Detective Sergeant Fraser, for instance.

Both Masson and Leonard are hilarious in their female roles, and Leonard gets the play off to a terrific start with his pompous self-deluded 13th Earl, the one who hangs himself accidentally in a mis-judged moment of intimate pleasure.

Kathryn Drysdale is suitably sultry and determined as the wife of McAvoy’s Earl and mother to his heir. She has a silky, deliciously seductive voice which she uses to tremendous effect. As the old, old-school Bishop, Michael Cronin gets by, but there is much more ghastliness to be uncovered in that capricious and grasping character than he manages here.

But, on any view of it, this is McAvoy’s night. And he delivers the goods – spectacularly.

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