Trafalgar Studios – The Ruling Class

A change of scene is good, they say. So, it was a straight swap of Penzance for Paddington last week, no finer excuse to catch some London theatre.

In 1968, Peter Barnes created a classic stage play: The Ruling Class. The story of a paranoid-schizophrenic son that believes he is God, inheriting his father’s earldom, and the fortune, privileges and responsibilities attached to it. It’s funny, beautifully written, and forensically targeted, biting satire. To hear of its revival at London’s Trafalgar Studios, under the direction of Jamie Lloyd, it was seemingly unmissable; not least because James McAvoy was to play the paranoid-schizophrenic 14th Earl of Gurney.

McAvoy’s performance is exceptional. Immeasurably energetic, wonderfully captured, and perfectly hitting the moments of Barnes’ beautiful poetry while convinced he is the God of Love. At points I feared he might be too mad, but each line had such life and colour, especially across the first half. One moment in particular, where the Earl spoke directly to the audience, shone. “Is everyone all right?” he asked. A momentary pause, as the audience was caught off guard: should we reply? “Ooh, tough crowd,” came McAvoy’s tension-defusing response. It was immaculately judged: what could be less sane than speaking to a fourth wall?

To highlight McAvoy is not to do a disservice to the rest of the cast, his role allows him to show us every colour in his palette and each skill in his vast repertoire (including unicycling!). All of the performances were a joy to watch: from Joshua McGuire’s simpering prospective Tory MP Dinsdale Gurney, to Ron Cook’s meddling, blustering Sir Charles. Serena Evans’ Lady Claire sparkled: her captivating presence and strength brought welcome moments of calm, far from the madding crowd.

The show itself is utterly beautiful. Jamie Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour have created a magical world, fit for the Son of God. The set is a treat: a lavish, high-ceilinged country home, bedecked with dark wood, and swiftly dominated by a towering crucifix. The moments in the garden, and magical appearance of sunflowers, were stunningly realised. The Earl’s “sanity” in act two brings with it a cornucopia of Victorian anachronisms, and innumerable glass cases, stuffed with taxidermy. It’s a compelling sight, the Earl is judged by his peers to be normal, yet surrounded by barbarism.

While it’s impossible to deny the quality of its component parts, the play as a whole didn’t quite reach the heights it could have. Certainly Barnes wrote a comedy, but this production was just too safe. The Earl’s shift from the God of Love to what his family perceive as normality could have been so much darker, and that bit more terrifying. Not everything had to be funny, and a sharper contrast would only have made the moments of lightness more radiant, and hit home the unsettling undercurrent of the play. The final image of the unelected House of Lords merely felt like a cartoon, far too distant to draw parallels.

In spite of many moments of brilliance, this production felt like a missed opportunity. However, the production is certainly worth catching for the God-like McAvoy, who excels. And how does he know he’s God?

‘Simple. When I pray to Him I find I’m talking to myself.’

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