'The Ruling Class': Theater Review

Johan Persson
He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy

James McAvoy returns to the London stage as a mentally deranged English aristocrat with messianic delusions in director Jamie Lloyd's revival of a 1960s political comedy

A terrific showcase for the talents of James McAvoy, The Ruling Class is a bawdy political farce about class, wealth and power first staged in the revolutionary year of 1968. Tonally and stylistically, much of this revival still belongs firmly in the late 1960s, but McAvoy's beauty, charisma and powerhouse performance elevate it from camp museum piece to glamorous comic romp. The X-Men and Atonement star's all-ages female fanbase was out in force on press night, united in appreciation of his considerable charms. Unsurprisingly, tickets for this limited run are already in short supply.

Following their triumphant Macbeth two years ago, The Ruling Class reunites McAvoy with Jamie Lloyd, artistic director of the Trafalgar Transformed season, which aims to bring socially relevant drama to the heart of London's West End. Written by Peter Barnes, the play was filmed by Peter Medak in 1972, earning Peter O'Toole an Oscar nomination in the starring role. But the movie was a commercial flop, and there have been no stage revivals since the original run.

The first act opens with the death of an English aristocrat, the 13th Earl of Gurney (Paul Leonard), in a boldly staged auto-erotic asphyxiation scene that feels like Monty Python at their most caustic. His son Jack, the 14th Earl (McAvoy), inherits the family fortune. Just one problem: Jack is insane, believing himself to be the new Messiah, and preaches a gospel of universal love that must have struck a topical chord during the play's hippie-era first run. Spouting verbose screeds of Biblical quotation, ripe sexual innuendo and pure gibberish, McAvoy is perfect for the role. Imagine a priapic Russell Brand running rampage through Downton Abbey.

In a bid to wrestle back control of the family money, Jack's scheming uncle Sir Charles Gurney (Ron Cook) engineers a plan to have his mistress Grace Shelley (Kathryn Drysdale) marry the sick Earl, produce a male heir, then quietly have Jack confined to a mental hospital. But the messianic playboy has his protectors, including his psychiatrist Dr Herder (Elliott Levey) and the crypto-communist family servant Daniel Tucker (Anthony O'Donnell). With their support, the Earl begins to regain his fragile sanity.

In the process, however, Jack reverts to aristocratic type. He trades his New Testament message of love for an Old Testament creed  of vengeful power, just as he replaces his crumpled white suit with a diabolically smart black one. Despite his outwardly sane appearance, he becomes even more psychotic in the second act, only this time his murderous misdeeds are embraced by a British Establishment built on systematic cruelty and injustice. This is sledgehammer satire, clumsy but effective.

Attacking his juicy starring role with relish, McAvoy is a spring-heeled dynamo, working hard to blow the cobwebs off a creaky old text. His exacting performance is easily as committed as his 2013 Macbeth, requiring a broad skillset both physical and verbal: from swordplay to singing, enunciating whole speeches in a Klingon-style alien language, hanging from a giant cross and riding a unicycle in just his underpants. His louche, fruity, upper-class English drawl seems to be modelled on Peter O'Toole's screen performance, which would be a mischievous but inspired act of homage. Just occasionally a hint of his native Glasgow accent slips through.

A patchwork of black humour, sexual vulgarity, cross-dressing pantomime dames and incongruous musical interludes, The Ruling Class recalls an era when left-wing British dramatists were using Brechtian techniques to speak truth to power. Fiercely opposed to the "deadly servitude" of naturalism, Barnes shared some of his disruptive agit-prop methods with contemporaries like Joe Orton, David Mercer, Joan Littlewood, TV dramatist Dennis Potter and film-maker Lindsay Anderson. This style doubtless felt fresh and subversive almost 50 years ago, but today seems rather polemical and parochial.

In their program notes and promotional interviews, Lloyd and his team are keen to stress the play's relevance to contemporary Britain. There are certainly some striking echoes in lines like "one per cent of the population owns half the property in England", and in scathing references to former students from the elite Eton school running the country, which applies equally today with Prime Minister David Cameron and half his cabinet being Old Etonians.

Then again, social class and the grotesquely fascinating perversity of the aristocracy are evergreen British obsessions, even if the current age of austerity lends them extra currency. The oafish upper classes have been easy comic targets on stage and screen for so long now that seeing them lampooned yet again barely has any satirical bite. A radical remix of The Ruling Class that addressed the bankers, oligarchs and corporate moguls would have staked a deeper claim on the 21st century zeitgeist.

Strangely, Lloyd has done little to refresh the play's clunky lines and crudely drawn caricatures, which despite their subversive intent are still steeped in West End farce convention. Yesterday's iconoclasts become today's traditionalists. Running well over two hours, this production might have benefited from stripping out some of its dusty period references and labored stage-drunk slapstick. Likewise Soutra Gilmour's single set, a grand country-house interior of dark wood and stuffy Victorian trimmings, could almost have been sitting in mothballs since the original production. Both text and context feel dated, and oddly reverential towards such an irreverent play.

McAvoy's blazing, swashbuckling, messianic performance is the saving grace of Lloyd's revival - no pun intended. He inevitably dominates, outshining his capable but less famous co-stars, who are chiefly written as stooges and straight men anyway. In fairness, The Ruling Class ultimately emerges as a flawed but fascinating relic, dense with verbal flights of fancy and profane comic invention, like a rum-soaked Christmas cake that has been waiting decades to be digested.

Cast: James McAvoy, Kathryn Drysdale, Anthony O'Connell, Ron Cook, Elliott Levey, Serena Evans, Michael Cronin, Joshua McGuire, Paul Leonard, Forbes Masson
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Playwright: Peter Barnes
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Sound and music: Ben and Max Ringham
Choreographer: Darren Carnall
Musical director: Huw Evans
Fight director: Kate Waters
Presented by Jamie Lloyd Productions, Ambassador Theatre Group

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