Maybe we have a government dominated by ex-Public School boys, but director Jamie Lloyd’s claim (see my article: http://www.thepublicreviews.com/preview-all-change-for-trafalgar-transformed/ ) that Peter Barnes’ 1968 play is filled with modern relevance seems just a little tenuous. Nonetheless, this revival does not need to be justified on any grounds other than that it is still a thoroughly enjoyable black comedy in the best self-mocking British tradition – a sort of Kind Hearts and Coronets on acid. The opening scene – the 13th Earl of Gurney, a judge, dies, wearing a tutu, in an S&M ritual that goes wrong – sets the tone for what is to follow, one of of total irreverence. The 14th Earl is to be Jack (James McAvoy), a paranoid schizophrenic who believes himself to be God, forcing his uncle (Ron Cook) to plot to get him sectioned, but only after marrying him off to his own mistress, Grace Shelley (Kathryn Drysdale), so as to produce an heir. Barnes’ play hits its targets head on, not going in for subtlety, and it suits Lloyd’s established style. He gives us a high energy production and McAvoy again proves to be his perfect leading man. In reviewing Macbeth, the first play in Lloyd’s Trafalgar Transformed seasons, I likened McAvoy’s performance to a “hyperactive brat”, adding that he was very strong when insanity begins to set in. Exactly the same comments apply here, except that he is playing for comedy and (supposedly) Jack grows saner as the play progresses. Leaping onto a cross to take a nap, unicycling around the bedroom on his wedding night, this is an all-action performance which drives the production and an English-accented McAvoy meeting Jack’s nemesis in the form of a Scottish rival God provides a particularly neat joke. In fact, McAvoy seems to be having a whale of a time with the physical comedy throughout and he is well-supported by Cook, Drysdale, Joshua McGuire as Jack’s dim-witted cousin (an aspiring Tory MP of course) and Serena Evans as his lusty, promiscuous aunt. However, Anthony O’Donnell, riotously funny as Tucker, the contemptuous, drunken manservant and Russian spy, comes close to stealing the show. Inevitably with this type of surreal comedy, there are times when the humour dries up and Lloyd’s production is, generally, less sure-footed in the darker second half. However, for the most part, laughter abounds and we are left with several memorable images, such as a fusty, cobweb-covered House of Lords front bench, screeching for the return of flogging and hanging. At a time when some West End producers seem to find it hard to see beyond repeated revivals of Hay Fever, The Importance of Being Earnest and the like, Lloyd has to be congratulated for unearthing a neglected play that is very different and has real bite. The passage of time has certainly blunted the satire in The Ruling Class, but its comedy is as sharp as ever.
Performance date: 20 January 2015