There is no such thing as a classless society. If Animal Farm teaches us anything, it is this: someone is always more equal than another. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle – we look down on part of society and envy another. Peter Barnes’ satire The Ruling Class explores the concept of the upper classes and perhaps also the theory that they are inbred and therefore insane.
After the 13th Earl of Gurney (Paul Leonard) dies in an unfortunate asphyxiation accident (whilst wearing a tutu) the heir is his son Jack (James McAvoy), a paranoid schizophrenic who believes himself to be God (“you may call me JC”). When asked how he discovered this, he answers “I was praying and suddenly realised that I was talking to myself!” And of course the God jokes don’t stop there, especially at his wedding as he reacts to the vows…
Dismayed at the effect the singing and dancing (oh yes) deity will have on the family, Jack’s uncle (Ron Cook) tricks Jack into marrying his mistress Grace (Kathryn Drysdale) so that they will have a legal heir and have Jack committed.
However, Grace falls in love with him and after being seduced by Jack’s aunt (Serena Evans), Jack’s doctor (Elliot Levey) tries his best to cure him and believes he has succeeded, as JC shouts “I’m Jack, I’m Jack!” However, it later becomes clear that he now believes himself to be Jack the Ripper and kills both his aunt and Grace.
The Ruling Class manages to be serious and stupid at the same time. It’s very funny in places, but the odd dance numbers from the cast (although amusing) are strange. However, they do perhaps give us an insight into Jack’s confused mind. As the curtain falls on Act I, it’s unclear if this is the end of the play or just the act, which is a sign of good writing. In fact Peter Barnes has a very evocative writing style, managing to tackle some very controversial issues in an enjoyable way.
James McAvoy is just fantastic, looking half-crazed at times and perfectly aristocratic and rational at others. He embraces the role whole-heartedly, walking with his hands clasped around his knees, talking to caterpillars and even the audience in a gentle, yet terrifying way. The singing and dancing is surreal, but somehow not cheesy or contrived.
In fact the whole cast are energetic and strong, particularly Paul Leonard and Forbes Masson who manage to pull off the old prying ladies without a single thought of pantomime, even when they sing and dance!
Anthony O’Donnell as (dis)loyal manservant Tuck is a delight to watch, acting as the faithful servant and then revealing his communist tendencies by swearing at the audience and leaping around the corpse of Lady Claire crying “One less, one less”.
The Ruling Class is one of the strangest pieces of theatre I have seen recently, but it’s also one of the best. It’s different, funny and oddly symbolic.
Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes
The Ruling Class is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until 11 April 2015.