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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE RULING CLASS
at Trafalgar Studios

MISSING INTANGIBLES
By NICK CURTIS

  James McAvoy and Kathryn Drysdale/ Ph: Johan Persson

Sometimes, the magic just doesn't work. I love the gleeful, angry, absurd showmanship and sprawl of the late Peter Barnes' plays. I met the man twice and found him generous and sympathetic. Having acted in a university production that I and others found to be hilarious, I hold a particular candle for The Ruling Class, his first hit from 1968, in which the aristocratic Gurney family try to deal with a paranoid schizophrenic heir who thinks he is, quite literally, God.

I hoped the revivifying talents of wunderkind director Jamie Lloyd, and the mixed sweetness and suppressed violence of star James McAvoy, would make it sing. I hoped the fact that British society seems as class-bound and polarised now as it was in 1968 might make The Ruling Class feel fresh. But no, despite its jesterish energy, fierce wit and antic fondness for monologues and sudden music-hall routines, Barnes' play just lies there on the Trafalgar Studios stage, inert.

It is absolutely not McAvoy's fault. He is the best thing on stage. Lithe, nimble, with a mad glint and a vulpine grin, he finds a gripping physical expression for Jack Gurney's racing thoughts and tumbling dialogue. Despite its hectic sweatiness, it's a more rich and nuanced performance than his Macbeth here a few years ago. He also gets to wear some of the most beautifully tailored costumes seen on the London stage in recent years.

It is probably not the fault of the rest of the cast, either, though only Anthony O'Donnell, as the bolshie family retainer, Tucker, manages to come anywhere near McAvoy's animation. Ron Cook as Jack's scheming uncle, Serena Evans as his naughty aunt, Joshua Maguire as his dimwit cousin, Elliot Levey as his chilly psychiatrist – these excellent actors, and many more, seem stranded in the script.

Barnes' jokes sound hollow and cloth-eared, his political thoughts like flatulent misfires. The play's manic swagger looks desperate, and the post-interval lurch from political farce into Hammer-style horror feels contrived. Even Soutra Gilmour's set - apart from the flowers that pop prettily out of the floor - looks like something an amateur dramatic society might erect in a village hall.

Is it Lloyd's fault, then? Maybe not even his. He has taken the same approach here he did to another neglected classic, Harold Pinter's The Hothouse, enlisting a heavyweight cast and ramping up the energy (arguably, the approach he brings to all his Trafalgar productions). But while The Hothouse sprang to life, The Ruling Class lies dead. It probably won't be done again now for another 20 years, if at all. What a shame. Sometimes the magic just doesn't work.

 


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