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The Ruling Class

The Ruling Class at Trafalgar Studios. Photo: Johan Persson
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“How do you know you’re God?” Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, is asked. “Simple. When I pray to him I find I’m talking to myself.” The logic is faultless. But I couldn’t help wondering at times if playwright Peter Barnes over-identifies with him: there are times in this florid, epic and sweeping portrait of a bitter aristocratic family power struggle when the author seems to be in love with his own voice as much as those of his characters.

Still, there’s no doubting the boldness of this bonkers play about a special kind of madness, and its alternately outrageous and courageous view of a titled – and heavily entitled – family’s feud, and the extremes that they are driven to.

It originally premiered at Nottingham Playhouse in 1968, before transferring to the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre and was then made into a 1972 feature film that starred Peter O’Toole in an Oscar nominated performance. Strangely, the play has never had a major London revival since, even though it is much beloved of student companies up and down the land.

You can see why in its crazy, youthful comic exuberance and brio, and a raft of influences drawn from the theatre of its time from Eugene Ionesco to Joe Orton. It’s dangerous, surprising, and wildly entertaining. The joy of Jamie Lloyd’s latest production for his own producing company at Trafalgar Studios is to field a veteran cast who lend it gravity and grit as well as a hilarious playfulness.

James McAvoy commands the stage with a performance that has a magisterial authority but also an electrifying charge of unpredictability. He is at the top of his considerable game as a stage actor here.

Although the play is unquestionably a star vehicle, it is not a one-man show, and Lloyd surrounds McAvoy with some brilliant character actors, including Forbes Masson in a series of seven sometimes startling cameos, Ron Cook, Anthony O’Donnell, Elliot Levey and Joshua McGuire, to lend it a lot of vigour, without stinting on the rigour of Barnes’ tangled, audacious play that keeps both them and the audience constantly on their toes.

They also get invaluable assistance in the atmospheric settings of Lloyd’s usual designer Soutra Gilmour, who conjures the epic sweep of the play with its domestic intimacy and keeps its 27 scenes flowing seamlessly. The triumph of Lloyd’s production is to serve subsidised theatre values in a commercial setting. The play is a bold choice for the West End with its reliance on familiar titles, but Lloyd’s faith in it is rewarded by a production that remakes it for a modern generation.

  • Trafalgar Studios, London
  • January 16-April 11, PN January 26
  • Author: Peter Barnes
  • Director: Jamie Lloyd
  • Design: Soutra Gilmour (set/costume), Jon Clark (lighting), Ben Ringham, Max Ringham (sound), Richard Mawbey (wigs/hair)
  • Technical: Dominic Fraser (production manager), Emma Banwell-Knight (company stage manager), Nina Kendall (wardrobe mistress)
  • Cast includes: James McAvoy, Ron Cook, Kathryn Drysdale, Serena Evans, Paul Leonard, Elliot Levey, Forbes Masson, Joshua McGuire, Anthony O’Donnell, Michael Cronin
  • Producers: Howard Panter, Adam Speers, Ambassador Theatre Group, Jamie Lloyd Productions
  • Running time: 2hrs 40mins

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