There’s a kind of performance that is difficult to review. So erratic and zany that you sit there wondering whether it’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen or the best. And while I couldn’t say I’m 100% sure, I’m fairly certain James McAvoy’s turn as Jack Gurney falls into the latter.
Written by Peter Barnes back in the 60s, The Ruling Class tells the story of Jack Gurney and the aftermath of him inheriting his father’s estate to become the 14th Earl of Gurney. A paranoid schizophrenic who genuinely believes he is God, he battles with his extended family to hold onto his fortune. While they want to see Jack married with an heir in order to be able to section him and take control once more, he is determined to prove his sanity.
Ahead of its time when written, this is as much about challenging our perceptions of the English aristocracy as it is about the frame of mind of the central character. And while those perceptions are perhaps less relevant in the 21st century, the play never feels outdated.
Partly that’s because the writing is undeniably sharply throughout. Barnes perfectly balances the more off the wall setups with the sincere dialogue to create a frenetic evening that constantly leaves you guessing what’s going to come next. Part comedy, part psycho-drama, part thriller, it jumps around tonally in a way that few plays dare to do. One minute you’re watching a man battling his inner demons, the next is complete farce. But with a real sense of wit and a central character who knows who he is (even if those around him are in disbelief) it works.
And it’s McAvoy that pulls it off. He’s both charming and terrifying as Jack, and there’s an energy to his performance that is tiring to watch. His name is above the title in this production, and he doesn’t let anyone forget it. By embracing the play’s slightly odder moments and inviting the audience into his mind, he’s oddly alluring. And it’s safe to say that you won’t find another production in London where you get to see the lead character ride around on a unicycle in his y-fronts.
On the whole this is an incredibly strong cast though. Kathryn Drysdale as Jack’s wife Grace Shelley, Ron Cook as Sir Charles Gurney, Serena Evans as Lady Claire Gurney and the ridiculously endearing Anthony O’Donnell as the family butler Daniel Tucker all hold their own in a production that could have fallen flat with weaker supporting performances.
It’s a real credit to director Jamie Lloyd to be able to balance the performances so well. Particularly in a production that, as with many of Lloyd’s most recent works, toes the line between style and substance very carefully. There’s no doubt that this is a Marmite show like many of his others, but for those who are willing to give it a taste and open themselves up to a play which isn’t afraid to challenge the audience’s perceptions, it’s a rewarding piece.
Row D, seat 28. This was my first time at Trafalgar Studios and while the view was second to none (especially at the reduced rate for being slightly to the side) it wasn’t the most comfortable seat I’ve been in. Being on the curve and with a fold down seat that almost turns to a bench, there were times that felt a bit like my neighbour was about to get on my lap. Still in such close proximity to the stage, I can’t complain too much.
(Main photo by Johan Persson)