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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Ruling Class

Dr. Herder: "He can't forget being rejected by his mother and father at the age of 11. They sent him away, alone, into a primitive community of licensed bullies and pederasts."
Sir Charles: "You mean he went to public school."
The Ruling Class
James McAvoy as Jack (Photo: Johan Persson)
The English aristocracy has long been held to be rather inbred; at best rather dim and eccentric and at worst, down right barmy. Peter Barnes author of The Ruling Class takes the latter view and illustrates his point by opening his play with the 13th Earl of Gurney (Paul Leonard) in a near hanging, sado-masochistic sexual experience, using a noose in his bedroom while dressed in a cocked hat and a ballet tutu. Except that on this occasion, his lordship loses his footing and gives way to the Grim Reaper. This provokes a crisis as his only surviving son and heir, Jack, is a paranoid schizophrenic, living in a monastic existence as a voluntary patient, who is convinced that he is God and Jesus Christ, and of course the Holy Ghost.

The first act, which feels half an hour too long, concentrates on the family getting Jack to marry Sir Charles Gurney's (Ron Cook) bit on the side Grace Shelley (played by Kathryn Drysdale) in order to produce an heir who can take over from mad Jack. The problem is that Jack, who is as mad as a hatter, is convinced he is already married to Marguerite Dumas, la Dame aux Camelias. Cue the waltz from La Traviata and Grace Shelley enters dressed as a nineteenth century French courtesan.

Dr Herder, a psychiatrist (Eliot Levy) is called in to help Jack recover his sanity and introduces another God candidate paranoid schizophrenic (Forbes Masson) to challenge Jack's delusions.

The second act sees Jack apparently sane except that he is linked to murders of prostitutes in London's East End.

Soutra Gilmour's set is the right kind of country mansion and outdoor scenes see sunflowers rising from the floorboards.

There are three excellent things about this production which make it worth seeing. Firstly is the magnificent performance of the newish Professor Charles Xavier in the recent X Men films, James McAvoy. It is a beautiful role for him, even if the plot is untidy and anarchic and dated in the class hatred of the politically naive 1960s.

McAvoy plays it for maximum comedy; no reference to Jesus goes without a smile and yet he also appears saintly and innocent. McAvoy is calm and regal as God, mounting the crucifix, erected in the stately home hall, to sleep and scaring the life out of visitors. After the "cure"as the apparently more conventional 14th Earl of Gurney, he is charming and handsome and convinces in adopting upper class bigotry so different from Jack's former Christian ideals.

Secondly is Jamie Lloyd's faultless direction of a strong ensemble cast. Thirdly, and these are the scenes I enjoyed most, there are some wonderful song and dance numbers; among them an energetic rag, Dem Bones, and a rendition of the Eton Boating Song when Jack recalls his days at Eton and passes a psychiatric examination from a fellow Old Etonian sent to assess him.

The butler Daniel Tucker (Anthony O'Donnell) is exposed as a Trotskyite agent but he adds to the comedy. The final, after a few murders, sees Jack taking his seat in the House of Lords among the Law Lords, who are coated in cobwebs, and with his language disintegrating into inarticulate and incomprehensible sounds.

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The Ruling Class
Written by Peter Barnes
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Starring: Jamie McAvoy
With: Ron Cook, Michael Cronin, Kathryn Drysdale, Serena Evans, Paul Leonard, Forbes Masson, Elliot Levey, Joshua McGuire, Anthony O'Donnell, Rosy Benjamin, Andrew Bloomer, Oliver Lavery, Geoffrey Tower
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting: Jon Clark
Sound and Music: Ben and Max Ringham
Choreography: Darren Carnall
Musical Director: Huw Evans
Fight director: Kate Waters
Running time:Two hours 40 minutes with an interval
Box Office 0844 871 7632
Booking to 11th April 2015
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th January 2015 performance at Trafalgar Studios One, 14 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)
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