It’s easy to be blinded by James McAvoy’s mercurial performance in Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, and indeed it’s one of the finest central performances I’ve witnessed on a West End stage, but this is a play that is not without its (considerable) faults.
Whilst there are parallels still there to be drawn, this 1968 satire has dated badly (cobweb covered members of the House of Lords, Marxist speechifying, quite frankly unfunny slapstick). Its absurdity and surreal tone sits somewhat uncomfortably with an audience more used to their drama being served up more naturalistically. However, if seeing James McAvoy in his underpants riding across the stage on a unicycle with the words “God Is Love” penned on his chest, his tutu wearing father accidently killing himself in a game of auto-erotic asphyxiation or the ensemble spontaneously bursting into a music hall ditty – then this is the play for you.
McAvoy is the 14th Earl of Gurney, newly returned to inherit the family estate but quite clearly one step beyond the usual aristocratic eccentricities, he enters clad in a monk’s cloak, claiming to be Jesus, leaping on and off a gigantic wooden cross, his family then do their utmost to disinherit him.
Whilst there are moments of genuine comedy and chuckles of recognition at the upper classes getting away with what they’ve perpetually gotten away with, there are things that sit most uncomfortably; the treatment of mental illness, the glib, stereotypical, throwaway and downright cruel representation of something that statistics state affects 1 in 4 people in the UK, just isn’t palatable today.
What saves the whole endeavour is McAvoy. His energy is mesmerising, burning like an incandescent flame from start to end, and I’m sure like many more who witnessed this performance, I personally can’t wait to see him on a West End stage again soon – just not in a Peter Barnes’ play.