Star-vehicle The Ruling Class roars into town this week with X-Men main man James McAvoy at the wheel. Peter Barnes’ play hasn’t been staged since 1969 and it quickly becomes apparent why.
On one level, The Ruling Class is a blunt satire on aristocracy and religion with McAvoy playing Jack Gurney, the newly-minted 14th Earl of Gurney and a possible paranoid schizophrenic who believes he is God Almighty. On another level, it is the tale of an ecstatically happy — if deluded — man and his dark and tragic descent towards sanity, marriage and fatherhood.
The Ruling Class puts the larger-than-life Gurney front and centre throughout most of the proceedings. Thanks to Barnes’ writing, McAvoy doesn’t need to steal scenes: he is handed them on a silver platter. The King Of Scotland actor is an entertaining and charismatic figure here but a pale imitation of the late Peter O’Toole’s nuanced and powerful take on the character, an effort which won the Irishman an Oscar nomination.
Alongside McAvoy, there’s a sterling silver cast to help carry along the farcical japes. Ron Cook is the scheming uncle keen to get his hands on the Gurney estate and his nephew in a straitjacket. Serena Evans is his lustlorn wife and both play their roles with steely conviction. As the ambitious mistress bedding her way along the Gurney family tree, Kathryn Drysdale is a little out of her depth but Forbes Masson’s explosive turn as The Electric Messiah is one of this production’s high points.
Director Jamie Lloyd keeps the pace cracking along as best as he can but he’s hamstrung by the almost-half-century-old script which is horribly dated and a tad flabby. Too many of the punchlines fall embarrassingly flat, the oh-so-topical references would now only amuse history geeks, and female characters are seemingly there purely to throw themselves at men and make pointed remarks about the male ego. The intermittent song and dance routines add some levity but largely fluff, detracting from the overall effect. As a production, The Ruling Class’s appeal relies largely on McAvoy earning the play’s unwavering spotlight by acting out of his skin. Which, quite frankly, he does.
The Ruling Class runs at Trafalgar Studios until 11 April. Tickets £29.50 – £69.50 plus £3 transaction fee. More information can be found on the venue’s website.