The 1968 play The Ruling Class, currently staged at The Trafalgar Studios as part of the Trafalgar Transformed season, is a clever and hilarious look at the English class system with a big bonkers lead role masterfully performed by Professor X himself, James McAvoy.
McAvoy plays the paranoid schizophrenic Jack, who becomes the 14th Earl of Gurney when his father dies dressed in a tutu, underpants and cocked hat in an erotic asphyxiation gone wrong, after a revealing opening monologue on British politics and dignitaries.
So after seven years in a mental institution, Jack returns to take his rightful place and inadvertently ends up the centre of a plot by his uncle to force him to produce an heir before being re-institutionalised. The only problem is that Jack believes he is God and is not shy about letting people know.
McAvoy gives an exceptional amount of himself to the performance and is gripping to watch throughout, whether he’s unicycling, spitting, ranting and raving, fighting, leaping around or attached to a huge crucifix. He was thoroughly charming, twice momentarily breaking the fourth wall for a quip about the crowd and his unicycle skills, but mostly intense. Female fans would have enjoyed his topless scenes and even the tease of him unzipping his trousers, a power of which he must be well aware.
This perfomance is a triumph in every way for McAvoy, who previously wowed at the same theatre as Macbeth, and he completely deserves his Olivier Award nomination.
Although McAvoy is undoubtedly the star of the show, every cast member adds humour and darkness to the stage. Honourable mentions must go to Anthony O’Donnell as the manservant who becomes an outspoken drunk after being bequeathed £20,000, Joshua McGuire as Jack’s bumbling cousin who’s more concerned with a by-election than any of the madness, and Ron Cook, the plotting but ridiculous uncle. The family and all those around them manage to swiftly satirise the problems with the upper classes which have been relevant for many decades.
The first act of Peter Barnes’ razor-sharp play is fairly jolly, with Jack preaching about love as the ‘God of Love’, his wife debuting in an old-fashioned opera gown, and plenty of harmless squabbling. The second act is when it gets dark, and the biggest turn comes brilliantly almost out of nowhere. I’d like to extend a separate huge round of applause towards director Jamie Lloyd for keeping this play relevant but also absurd, in all the best ways.
I was gripped throughout The Ruling Class, which isn’t necessarily easy for a two hour 40 minute-long play, and I was affirmed in my high thoughts when my companion promptly stood up during the applause. He is usually reluctant towards standing ovations, but barely hesitated after this masterpiece.