The Ruling Class
by Peter Barnes
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Trafalgar Studios, London
Saturday 14th March 2015, 19.30
James McAvoy as Jack, 14th Earl of Gurney
Anthony O’Donnell as Daniel Tucker, the butler
Ron Cook as Sir Charles Gurney, Jack’s uncle
Serena Evans as Lady Claire Gurney, Charles’s wife
Joshua McGuire as Dinsdale, Gurney, Charles and Claire’s son
Michael Cronin as Bishop Bertie Lampton, a relative
Katherine Drysdale as Grace Shelley, Charles’s mistress, then Jack’s wife
Elliot Levey as Dr Herder, experimental psychiatrist
Forbes Masson as Toastmaster, Matthew Peake the solicitor, Mrs Treadwell, McKyle, Kelso Truscott the Master of Lunacy, Police Sergeant, 1st Lord
Paul Leonard as 13th Earl of Gurney, Mrs Piggott-Jones, McKyle’s assistant, Inspector Brockett, 2nd Lord
After Richard III at the Trafalgar Studio in 2014, where audience members were gratuitously drenched with stage blood, I swore I’d never go to another Jamie Lloyd production. But The Ruling Class is a favorite play, an unmissable play. It has not been revived for years to my knowledge. Harold Hobson rated the play as one of the four most important new plays he’d seen in his life, together with Waiting for Godot, Look Back in Anger and The Birthday Party. Hobson said in 1968:
“It is a scorching and savage tragedy, yet its jokes are innumerable, and of a quality not to be found in any other play in London. Not only are they uproariously funny, but at the same time as they make you laugh your head off, they throw wide open the windows of your mind, they enlarge your field of vision, and they blow away the accumulated dust of ages. I am tempted to say that Mr Barnes’s wit is as dazzling as Wilde’s. In any case, it has more substance and wit.”
I’m pleased to see that comment, because in the Arcadia review a few weeks ago, I suggested The Ruling Class as among candidates for best play of the 20th century.
In our ten years of doing theatre for foreign students, we did rehearsed and costumed readings of real plays between our normal sketch shows. Every fourth show was a play, and the two we did most often, at least twice a year for eight to ten years, were The Importance of Being Earnest and The Ruling Class. I must have done the 14th Earl of Gurney over a dozen times, with Karen as Grace Shelley. I got so few lead roles (and only got this one because I then looked the part with hair and beard) that I learned my part in spite of it being a “reading.” We loved the play, though we cut it by about 30%. We loved the film with Peter O’Toole in the lead and with Arthur Lowe as the butler, Tucker, and with Alistair Sim as the bishop. It also changed the way we did the play.
The two copies illustrated show how the film took over from the stage version in 1972 (we started doing it in 1971) and also that we had to replenish our complete set of copies as they fell apart. On re-watching the film on DVD several years ago, I found a problem in knowing every line before it arrived, so the glorious surprise of Peter Barnes’ jokes was lost. So I expected this to emerge with the play and I was aware that our last go was 34 years ago.
The Saturday night audience had a visibly unusual demographic, so much so that in row D we actually counted the first four rows. The female to male ratio in the front area was 20: 4, looking behind us, that seemed to run across the whole theatre. I think that was down to McAvoy. The Trafalgar was not “transformed” into the round this time. It was a straightforward stage with heavy blue brocaded curtains. The set was a room in a stately home, though when they go outside sunflowers sprout up all over the stage. In Act 2, there is a symbolic selection of taxidermy in glass cases.
The plot? The 13th Earl is a judge, who enjoys hanging himself by the neck for autoerotic pleasure the day before sentencing. He does this in underpants, a ballet skirt and a cocked hat, then Tucker, his butler always brings him a whisky and soda. At the start he is enjoying the hanging so much he decides to have a second go, but inadvertently kicks the steps away in the throes of passion and dies.
Jack, 14th Earl of Gurney (James McAvoy) with Grace Shelley (Katherine Drysdale), posing as the Lady of the Camellias
The Gurney family meet to discuss what to do next. Sir Charles is the Earl’s half brother, Claire is his wife and Dinsdale his chinless wonder son, who is a prospective Conservative candidate. The Bishop is, from memory, another brother or uncle. The problem is Jack, the new 14th Earl, who has been locked away, mad, for seven years. He arrives, dressed as a monk, missing the funeral. The old earl’s will is read by Peake, the family solicitor, and it leaves £20,000 to the butler Tucker, who immediately becomes stroppy- he has always been a closet communist. The estate goes to his son, Jack. The will also says that if the will is contested everything goes to charity. The family decide to marry Jack off, to Grace, Sir Charles’s mistress, and as soon as an heir is produced, lock him up permanently. Jack believes he is God, because (in the play’s best known line) when he prays, he finds he is talking to himself. He believes he is the God of Love and scandalizes visiting women from the British Legion who want him to speak at their fete. They’re played in drag as a hilarious double act by Paul Leonard (also the 13th Earl) and Forbes Mason (also, Peake, the solicitor who reads the will). The Earl believes he is already married, to Marguerite Gautier, the Lady of The Camellias, so the family dress Grace up in all the operatic gear from La Traviata. Jack and Grace marry – the wedding scene is a key comedy scene. Grace gets pregnant. Dr Herder, from the mental hospital decides he can cure Jack by introducing McKyle (Forbes Mason again), who also thinks he’s God, but an evil god of electricity. It works in a massive stand off scene with McKyle screaming, eating light bulbs and projecting blue flashes. Grace gives birth and Jack at last realizes who he is, Jack the Earl of Gurney. End of Act One.
McKyle (Forbes Mason): as mad as Jack
In Act Two, Jack is clad in tweeds trying to be normal by shooting wild life. In a classic scene, he is interviewed by Kelso Truscott, the official Master of Lunacy for aristocrats, to decide whether he is sane. Yes, Forbes Mason again. This is one of the great scenes in the play, where they discover they’re both Old Etonians and bond over the Eton Boating Song. Truscott is as mad as a hatter of course, and declares Jack sane. Jack then dresses in silky black, starts to seduce his Aunt Claire, then turns into Jack the Ripper and murders her. We were flinching actually, remembering how five rows got sprayed with blood at Jamie Lloyd’s Richard III. But though very gory, it stayed on the stage. Tucker is set up and blamed. The police are another hilarious double act, and yes, it’s Paul Leonard and Forbes Mason AGAIN. Finally, Jack takes his place in the House of Lords, makes a vicious speech and … becomes one of the Ruling Class. Oh, then he murders Grace as the play ends.
Yes, it’s an extremely weird play and it’s absurd as well as being very funny and very thought provoking and very tragic. I should mention that the cast frequently break into song and dance.
Phew! First reaction, James McAvoy was better than even Peter O’Toole. The part of the 14th Earl of Gurney is hugely energetic and physical, and McAvoy roared and stuttered and spluttered, exploded with nonsense words, danced, sang, rode a unicycle, leapt on to a tiny platform on the crucifix, fell, rolled on the floor and still articulated every line perfectly. He also moves with grace throughout and does a wonderful fencing scene with Dr Herder. He’s hilarious. He’s terrifying. His fixed smile is that of the Mormon or Jehova’s Witness at your door. As a bravura flat out performance it will be hard to match this year. In the first act, he is convinced that he is the God of Love. After being “cured” he becomes a normal aristocrat, so violent. Then he becomes Jack the Ripper before taking his seat in House of Lords. AND he does it all in an English accent. His natural Scots seems to have strengthened noticeably on chat shows, but the play constantly refers “England” not “Britain.” Good. This is his second recent Jamie Lloyd Trafalgar Studios production, following on from Macbeth in 2013.
And what a cast. Every one memorable, and in this play the killer funny lines are well-distributed. Joshua McGuire is Dinsdale, a cameo made for him (though perhaps typecasting him). His Mozart in Amadeus at Chichester last year was one of 2014’s outstanding performances, then he was Ruskin in the film Mr Turner.
Mrs Treadwell (Forbes Mason), Jack (Jams McAvoy), Mrs Pigott-Jones (Paul Leonard)
I’ve mentioned Paul Leonard and Forbes Mason, and their incredible work rate just in costume changes with five to six roles, all significant. They work together as Mrs Piggott-Jones and Mrs Treadwell, and as Inspector Brockett and Sergeant Fraser. The two old biddies is one of the funniest men dressed as women scenes I’ve seen. Then Paul Leonard carries the start of the play as the old earl, with the hanging …incredibly realistic too, and Forbes Mason has the extremely physical role of the insane spitting Scot, McKyle.
Daniel Tucker, the butler (Anthony O’Donnell)
Anthony O’Donnell has the Arthur Lowe butler role, spitting in the soup and knicking the cutlery, and was perfect in it. Getting gradually and progressively drunker over two and a half hours is hard. Elliot Levey was Dr Herder, suitably mad too. He gets seduced by Lady Claire. After her murder he picks up the black rubber victim outline from the floor and dances, kisses, embraces it.
Lady Claire (Serena Evans), Jack (James McAvoy), Grace (Katherine Drysdale)
Serena Evans was an aristocratically aloof Lady Claire – we had seen her in Jamie Lloyd’s The School for Scandal at Bath, as well as the RSC Merry Wives of Windsor. Kathryn Drysdale is Grace Shelley, looking perfect as well as dancing and singing her way through. She has to shift from cheerful loveable cockney actress to become the Countess of Gurney as Jack’s wife, a role Grace Shelley embraces, her hemline getting longer as she rises in the world.
Sir Charles Gurney (Ron Cook)
Ron Cook was the fierce Sir Charles, and again we’d seen him as Pistol in the Grandage Henry V with Jude Law. He has to age dramatically in 5 seconds at the end. I still don’t know how they did it.
How had the play fared? There’s little to compare it with, and I feel the other reviews were right in saying it was “very late 60s” in style with the wild absurd comedy, and sudden shifts into song and dance or indeed violence. So to a degree, it is dated, but then so is Look Back in Anger or Private Lives or The Caretaker in their own ways. It still tingles with great lines, and both of us were amazed at how many we remembered. I was astonished at how well I knew McKyle’s lines, though I guess I listened to them often enough at close quarters. For a modern audience not versed in mid to late 60s style, it must come as quite a shock. But compare the film If …., which is also 1968, or its sequel Oh, Lucky Man. It was also the year that Hair! arrived in the West End, and the year of The Real Inspector Hound and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In retrospect it was a great year for theatre. A Day in The Death of Joe Egg was a year earlier. The absurd was at its height, we’re between the Goon Show, and its 60s TV successors and Monty Python which started in 1969. I hope this major production reminds the world of the play and leads to further productions.
Grudgingly, still annoyed by Richard III‘s silly confining set and blood spraying, I must say direction and set were excellent here. Five stars all round then.
What about the actual English ruling class? They lost their automatic route into the House of Lords years ago. Our taxi driver from the theatre asked ‘So what was that all about then?” We said the aristocracy, and he regaled us with tales of East End boys (himself as Jack the Lad) and West End Girls down the Kings Road in 1968, a fascinating and apposite choice of year. Only ever saw one black girl down there, he added, and she was in a leopard skin bikini with a white poodle which was wearing matching leopardskin. The Hooray Henries (or Dinsdales) didn’t stand a chance against East End masculinity. All gone now, he said. I never get that sort in the back of my cab anymore. And he’s right. Old Etonians? OK, Princes William and Harry; and the three leading Conservative politicians, David Cameron and George Osborne and Boris Johnston; but also Eddie Redmayne, Damian Lewis, Christopher Cazenove and Dominic West. Add Benedict Cumberbatch, James Fox, Edward Fox and writer Richard Curtis, from Harrow (the old school of both Sheridan and Rattigan). Hollywood and London theatre is full of them. That’s what the brightest ones did. Jack Gurney has become Jack the Lad, or rather Jack the Thespian. And yes, Dinsdale joined the Bullingdon Club (see POSH) and went into politics and runs the country and nowadays desperately tries to take the Etonian silly arse edge off his accent.
£4.50, so 50p more than the going rate. I thought the article on social class too general, and the Peter Barnes bio was just that. A bio. Not only that, but at £69 a seat on Saturday in the best area, being preached to about class division and wealth is deeply ironic. But I hadn’t known about Peter Barnes later career, which included scripting the TV series Merlin, and having triplets at age 72. It seems right for the play.
Poor programme indeed by Globe or RSC or National Theatre standards. Nothing on why they staged this as they did or why. I like a touch of directorial concept or motivation, and set design (excellent) is worth an essay.
Great sight lines. Excellent rake. Hard thin seats. Still totally inadequate ladies loos, exacerbated by the unusual female to male ratio at this show. They badly need to extend the ladies (as do all West End theatres) to the level of modern provincial theatres. Given that, the interval, calling “3 minutes left” after 12 minutes, was too short.
We had a girl next to us constantly photographing the play then texting, presumably to email the shots to friends, though she had to add text furiously. Incredibly inconsiderate of other theatre visitors. illegal and illicit too, though there would be nothing worth seeing at that distance in that light. One of the issues of major film stars on stage, is (he said snottily) “fan club” attendance which is enthusiastic in the extreme, but unused to plays. Hopefully they’ll be led to come to more and stop texting. My grandson (18 months) will pick up any smart phone and carry it at high speed to deposit it in the kitchen rubbish bin. I believe he’s a sensible lad, making a good point.