Britain’s poshness obsession reaches new heights in The Ruling Class, a 1968 Peter Barnes play that shows its age in every scoffing caricature and fusty, laboured punchline. Aristocratic power may be super-relevant in today’s poshocracy, but the fact that it’s topical doesn’t mean this play has anything profound to say. Somewhere between the depiction of the ruling class as psychopathic, murderous villains and blundering BoJo-esque buffoons the play loses sight of what makes the aristocracy so pernicious – its quiet, unshakeable grip on power; its silent creep into the twenty-first century.
But this production isn’t about poshness or class as much as it’s about James McAvoy. The diminutive thesp revives his partnership with director Jamie Lloyd in his role as 14th Earl of Gurney, a paranoid schizophrenic aristocrat who believes he is god. It’s the kind of manic, hammed-up performance that leaves you wondering whether the egomania belongs to the character or the actor. It struck me, watching it, that there are few things less dramatically interesting than a descent into inarticulate madness. He froths, he garbles, he shakes. Froth, garble, shake. Froth. Garble. Shake. For three hours.
The rest of the performances conform to familiar sub-Wilde drawing room cutouts one imagines actors get taught on day one of drama school.
The problem with plays like this is that they can’t help celebrating the very class they purport to chastise. The first scene ushers us into a world of the aristocratic kink and eccentricity we’re invited to laugh at, but also with. You can do what you want when you’re a member of the ruling class, even if that’s to auto-erotically asphyxiate yourself while wearing a tutu. To laugh impishly at the foibles of our overlords is the exactly the kind of thing Peter Cook was talking about when, in the 60s, he said “Britain is in danger of sinking, giggling into the sea.”