Theater: The Ruling Class

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Title: The Ruling Class
Cast: James McAvoy, Kathryn Drysdale, Anthony O’Donnell, Serena Evans
Seen on: February 10, 2015

James McAvoy opened the first season of Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Transformed back in 2013 with a stunning performance of McBeth, and he is back in the second season in a revival of Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class. I actually didn’t know the play going in, so I had no idea what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t what I got.

Holy bonkers, Batman!

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James McAvoy plays Jack, the 14th earl of Gurney. His father accidentally killed himself while erotically strangling himself in a tutu, and if that doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the play, then what does? The family is worried Jack might not be an appropriate heir to his father’s estate, but most importantly his good name and reputation, and we soon find out why.

Jack thinks he is Jesus Christ incarnated.

He calls himself the God of love, goes around prancing and dancing and singing ludicrous songs, thinks he is married to a fictional woman, crucifies himself and sleeps on the cross, hallucinates making tables fly, and fights an imaginative man with a dinosaur head.

Like I said, holy bonkers, Batman!

Jack’s family and doctor do everything to make him normal. Or, their normal. They’re a family of power, reputation, stature, and Jack needs to fit into that as the next earl of Gurney. The plot and plan and scheme, slowly but surely changing Jack from the carefree God of love to the powerful, edgy Earl of Gurney. The transformation is terrifyingly subtle; a man pushed to breaking point, and that breaking point being supposed normalcy. But where the doctor deemed Jack not dangerous in the first half of the play, Jack becomes a homicidal maniac in the second half. But the family is satisfied, because now Jack is “normal”.

While first written and performed in the 80s, the play is still a poignant, on-topic statement on the state of society; class, power-mad leaders, aristocracy, government, money, and how forcing your own “normal” on others can actually turn out very dangerous.

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The audience is represented by Tucker, the family’s loyal servant. He is the common man, the outsider, the mostly reasonable thread through the insanity that is this play. Tucker is the relief between the manic happenings, the one thing you recognise and relate to, and it makes the play a little bit easier to handle. This is not a play for the light-hearted or easily offended. And please do not go see this if you are of a strong religious persuasion, unless you are open to parody and ridicule. If you are not, this is not for you. At all.

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Now for the actors. James McAvoy is absolutely magnetic. Despite a completely bonkers story, with more insanity than you can safely shake a stick at, McAvoy keeps it all together like a messiah. Which, incidentally, his character thinks he is. The first half of the show, McAvoy prances around the stage like a man possessed, driven by love and conviction. His family all have one goal: cure him of his insanity and make him normal. Like them. Naturally, it all goes tits up after the interval, when McAvoy transforms his character from a foaming-at-the-mouth mental patient to an aristocrat with poise and stature. And a penchant for killing. The transformation is stunning.

One thing I have always been very impressed by, is McAvoy’s physicality. He gives his characters little things; a nose twitch, a finger movement, a speech pattern. But then he is amazing at the big stuff too; his stage presence, his energy, his charm. It is truly a fantastic thing to watch. For Jack, he gave him a speech pattern, a stammer, an involuntary noise, a nose twitch, where appropriate. That is one of the things I love about McAvoy as an actor and I cannot stop being amazed by it every single time. His Jack is no exception.

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I didn’t care much for Kathryn Drysdale’s Grace – Jack’s wife. I only know her from Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, where she plays an airhead, and her Grace isn’t much different. Maybe Grace was written that way, maybe it’s the way she plays it, but I felt like she could have given Grace a bit more layers.

Anthony O’Donnell as Tucker is lovely; he brings the levity, the jokes, and his sacrifice at the end is just tragic. It makes you hate McAvoy’s Jack a little more and feel for O’Donnell’s Tucker even more. And he does a very convincing drunken man 😉

The rest of the cast was alright, but didn’t blow my mind particularly. It is really McAvoy’s show, but he rules them all spectacularly.

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Throw in a few silly songs, McAvoy riding around on a unicycle in his pants, a rather explicit sex scene followed by a murder, and a suicide by erotic strangulation, and you are close to at least understanding what takes place in The Ruling Class. That doesn’t mean you understand what to expect though; whatever you think The Ruling Class is, it isn’t. It’s crazier, better, and will leave you with one question: What?!

Rating: 7/10

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