Theatre Review: The Ruling Class – Trafalgar Studios

Summary (from the ATG website): Jack, a possible paranoid schizophrenic with a Messiah complex, inherits the title of the 14th Earl of Gurney after his father passes away in a bizarre accident. Singularly unsuited to a life in the upper echelons of elite society, Jack finds himself at the centre of a ruthless power struggle as his scheming family strives to uphold their reputation.

Bubbling with acerbic wit and feverish energy, Olivier Award-winning and Oscar-nominated writer Peter Barnes’ razor-sharp satire combines a ferocious mix of hilarity and horror whilst mercilessly exposing the foibles of the English nobility.

The first ever revival of this classic cult comedy is directed by Trafalgar Transformed Artistic Director, Jamie Lloyd.

This is going to be a rather quick review because there are only so many ways you can say “Wow!”

The whole production felt fresh, bright, energetic and relevant, which for a play written approximately 40 years ago and not changed significantly for this staging, is quite a feat given that the class system has since declared destroyed. But, unfortunately, despite what some politicians would have us believe, the British class system hasn’t gone away. Instead it, and its effects on the country, have been partially buried in trendy terms and deliberate obfuscation on the part of those who still benefit the most.

What this play does is refocus the attention, shine a vivid, brilliant light on what the class system meant and still means to far more people than we would like to admit, and the potential for damage and destruction the system holds. Of course the play exaggerates the system, plays to the stereotypes, wallows in the fantastical but that doesn’t negate either the message or the wonderfulness of what is presented. In fact I’d be worried if it didn’t dramatize with such relish; a play is, regardless of anything else it might be, a piece of drama and therefore it should be as dramatic as necessary to get its point across.

And the drama is glorious; there is singing, there is dancing, there is murder, mayhem and manners (good and bad). Plus there is James McAvoy on a unicycle in his underpants! The physicality of the staging (which only goes so show just how good a director Jamie Lloyd is) brings an urgency to each moment that makes your heart race and pulls you in completely, ensuring the more bizarre elements heighten the message of the play (that the class system can be used to hide a multitude of sins) rather than overshadow it.

The staging is excellent, a brilliant mix of the sumptuous and the surreal, and the cast are fantastic. James McAvoy was mesmerising as Jack and I have no idea how he managed to keep the energy of his performance up given just how much jumping, climbing, falling and fighting he does. I must also mention Kathryn Drysdale, who was fantastic as Grace Shelley, and Ron Cook who, as Sir Charles, epitomised everything wrong with those people in this world who think they are somehow better than everyone else.  

I laughed a huge amount (often at completely politically incorrect things) as did the rest of the audience, and I completely felt that the standing ovation they received was very, very well earned. However I left with a sense of unease in the pit of my stomach because, for all the dramatics and ridiculousness that made it such a joy to watch, the base plot was entirely plausible. It was disquieting in a good way and set me thinking in a variety of important (especially given the upcoming elections), yet uncomfortable, directions.

The run finishes on 11 April, so you’ll need to quick to catch it, if there are any tickets left at all. If you want to try, the link is here!

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