James McAvoy in Ruling Class

Update 08/04/2015 with some thoughts on the Oliviers at the end of post

TimeOut photo of James McAvoy (sorry, wish i knew who the photographer was because i really like it!) He seems to be quite fond of the ginger beard 😉

So far theatre this year has been as good as last year, highly entertaining, thought provoking, fun. I’ve been lucky to be able to see a few things and this holiday weekend I’ve got an extra dose. I’ve seen Ruling Class a couple of weeks ago now, but thanks to a generous £15 Mondays plan the Trafalgar Studios do I’m going again on Monday this time with my friends and I hope they will enjoy it as much as I did.

A huge dose of black humour is necessary  🙂

The Ruling Class is a 1968 play by Peter Barnes. Peter O’Toole played the lead role in the premiere and also in the film adaptation a few years later .

This is the first revival of the play on a stage in London, and you’ll see why this may not be an easy play to stage. In a nutshell the subject is as follows (as per Trafalgar Transformed summary):

‘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 its 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 West End revival of this classic cult comedy is directed by Trafalgar Transformed Artistic Director, Jamie Lloyd.’

There are some spoilers ahead, but the run is sadly already close to its end on April 11th so hopefully you won’t mind very much.

James and Kathryn Drysdale

Let me say I think it is a pity these performances are not filmed, generally none of the stuff from the Trafalgar Transformed seasons was and there have been quite a few worthy productions. The Trafalgar Studios are a small place, I’m guessing around 300 seats, maybe slightly more but not much. This makes for a very intimate atmosphere and a very engaging one. The direction, mainly Jamie Lloyd, tends to be more modern, slightly experimental and aimed at the less traditional theatre going audience. Not everything I’ve seen by Jamie Lloyd worked perfectly but I like his ideas and his style and he makes me think about things differently. And he’s certainly not afraid to take on challenging works. And may his artistic collaboration with James McAvoy endure for a long time! I think both their sense of adventure and dare meet very productively on the stage of Trafalgar Studios.

This interview is a good read about their collaboration.

Telegraph photo of James McAvoy and director Jamie Lloyd

This play is … well… bonkers really 🙂 But it uses a pretty outlandish plot to make some dark and valid points about how society round here can function at times. It was certainly more relevant in its day and is less so today, but things have not moved on quite as much as we would like to think. A lot of the irony still works today and there is something eternally human about struggles insides families to keep the hands on the family fortune and influence that comes with it. And something quite disgusting about what people are willing to do to achieve these goals and what is acceptable in society. It is all set up almost as a farce and characters are enhanced to the point of caricature, making us laugh very effectively.

There is anything from the manipulating uncle who wants to stay in charge and who is willing to marry his ex-mistress to his mad nephew, the cheating aunt who gets it on with the nutter’s doctor, the useless cousin who is into politics, the prude ladies of the village, the ever present butler who ends up having to take the blame for crimes he hasn’t committed, etc. And there is of course the main character, Jack (son of the recently deceased earl), who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.

He starts off as an endearing sweet fellow, who preaches love and thinks himself God and ends up due to the various pressures he’s put under to sober up and take charge of his responsibilities as a much more sinister character. The ultimate irony is of course that when he ends up believing himself to be Jack the Ripper (acting accordingly) he achieves not only the power in the family but also the acceptance of his peers in the House of Lords.

Jamie Lloyd has embraced the story fully and goes to town with it and a visceral, gutsy way. The 2h 40 min of the 2 act play whizz by at lightning speed with much physicality and laughter and even a lot of music and dance! There is never a drop off in the tension and I felt pretty exhausted by the end. These two reviews from the Independent  and Guardian  capture the atmosphere really well  🙂

And nothing spins faster and more bewitchingly so in the play than James McAvoy as Jack. I’ve wanted to see him on stage for quite a while and though I did try pretty hard I never made it to his Macbeth last season. Now I regret that even more.

stil from the Telegraph interview

I’ve seen a few of his films, (yes, including X Men) to know that there is actually much more to him than Professor X.. or what we see in Atonement 😉 I found Danny Boyle’s ‘Trance’ and Eran Creevy’s ‘Welcome to the Punch’(co-starring James’s football mate Mark Strong 😉 ) much more interesting. I’m yet to see ‘Filth’  which I missed in cinemas due to travel, but it is on my to do list. For anyone interested in seeing some real acting chops from McAvoy I can heartily recommend them, though none will be an easy watch :-).

Basically I have known for a while that McAvoy is not your traditional romantic hero type, or rather that he has managed to get out of that drawer pretty effectively for quite some time now. And that he does like a challenge, both physically as well as acting wise. Which is why I was curious as to how and if this would translate on stage (for rehearsal pictures see here).

The answer was pleasantly and to my surprise a resounding YES. If I was exhausted just watching the play I still wonder how he was still standing at the end of it. There was jumping up and down from a cross, unicycling (in just his 70’s tighty whities), dancing, singing, fighting, fencing and all manner of movement, both standing up and lying on the floor. And all this while delivering monologues at jaw-dropping speed and with amazing clarity. He managed to be very convincing preaching love to all in a fake garden with a flower-power wistfulness and innocence. I could hear hearts fluttering at the charming twinkle in his eyes 😉 So boyish and so reckless that you really felt for him being dragged out of his self-induced bubble by the family who wanted him to become acceptable to society.

He essentially gets shocked back to reality by comparison with another patient in the asylum he used to be locked up in. The emotional struggle is almost painful to watch. What follows however is even more mesmerising, though utterly chilling and dark.

The stage reflects this whiff of Victorian era effectively with all kinds of stuffed birds and antiques and he’s changed from the paisley shirt to black and white elegant garb. All emotions are forcefully contained step by step under this new icy, strange persona, which seems to behave normally or at least according to acceptable norm. The drain of any warmth, sympathy is captivating and utterly frightening. I literally wanted to wrap myself up against the cold that was emanating from him. His eyes became those of a cold killer. We also get to see him act out those impulses that Jack then managed to hide very effectively under this external polish. He doesn’t hesitate to blame the butler for his crime, who had been the only person kind to him previously.

James as Jack… the Ripper via Tumbler from larygo

Luckily the tension and the darkness is lifted every now and then by the hilariously ridiculous relatives otherwise I would have wanted to duck under my row 3 seat! So, I laughed along as they broke into dance and song again 🙂 (for dancing gifs and photos scroll down).

There was also a hilarious little accident. He’s incredibly versatile, flexible and agile physically (and a surprisingly good dancer!) and all had gone perfect to a T nearly to the end of the play. But, at one point half way through part 2 he gets into a fencing duel with his former doctor at which point he starts by elegantly swinging his cane as he engages him… only he was going at such speed that he whacked himself quite hardly and audibly in the process! Needless to say we were all in stiches! And so was he… LOL For a few quick seconds he had to lean on a side wall holding his cane rubbing the sore spot and smiling widely. But, he never stopped talking and never missed a beat in the lines while doing so and it only took him one quick breath to be back to his character. It was quite something to see a flash of goofy McAvoy appear and then disappear in a split second and back was the cold killer!

as the Ripper… from JamesySmitten on twitter

The play ends with his big racist and misogynistic speech in the House of Lords. If you could hear away from the content  of what he was saying and focused just on the delivery it could have been Shakespeare! Or rather I had a perfect flash of what he can probably do with and in Shakespeare! I really hope I get to see that.

I came away thinking he’s eloquent and clear, with great natural delivery and presence. He’s a dynamo and he’s extremely charming, not least because he seems to be holding nothing back; on the contrary, he seems to throw himself and all he’s got out there. But even the most profound manic rant felt purposeful and not hysteric. It was intense and focused rather than all over the place.

And I don’t think I actually felt fear like I did right there in front of that stage in a theatre before. He really really frightened me. I had seen him do evil on screen before,  but he proved to me in person that he can make me believe he can be anything he wants to be. To the point that fear lingered long enough for me not to be drawn to stage door after 😉  Those eyes were so so cold…

Until of course he came back for curtain calls and the place erupted in applause and standing ovations and he was smiling like a kid again 🙂 Looking completely knackered at it. There had been no sign the performance was challenging other than if you looked closely you could actually see rings under his eyes appearing as the play went on and it wasn’t make up.

As some of you may know, he’s been nominated for an Olivier for this performance (in hindsight not a surprise, although the run had barely started when the nominations were announced). As I found out with a bit of googling it is actually James’ 3rd Olivier nomination, he’s done well 🙂

I’m looking forward to his next role on stage and hope he’ll keep doing these in spite of his busy career. And cross fingers I’ll be able to bag a ticket for it! It has been a stroke of luck this time as it was a return, every penny well spent!

The production really worked and all the actors were perfectly cast in their roles, everyone was convincing and funny but in a natural way, there was no over-acting , which is not easy given the play. But it is exactly because everyone took their role seriously and acted it with belief and as if it all was just everyday life that the end result was utterly funny.

Finally, i couldn’t possibly withhold from you the cuteness of this extremely accurate version in cartoons of the play from palalife on tumbler 🙂 Enjoy!

Ruling Class By PETER BARNES  – See more on cast, reviews and photos here.

James McAvoy / Jack Gurney
Rosy Benjamin / Ensemble
Andrew Bloomer / Ensemble
Ron Cook / Sir Charles Gurney
Michael Cronin / Bishop Bertie Lampton
Kathryn Drysdale / Grace Shelley
Serena Evans / Lady Claire Gurney
Oliver Lavery / Ensemble
Paul Leonard / Multi-role
Elliot Levey / Dr Herder
Forbes Masson / Multi-role
Joshua McGuire / Dinsdale Gurney
Anthony O’Donnell / Daniel Tucker
Geoffrey Towers / Ensemble


DIRECTOR / Jamie Lloyd
DESIGNER / Soutra Gilmour
LIGHTING / Jon Clark
SOUND & MUSIC / Ben and Max Ringham
WIGS & HAIR / Richard Mawbey
CHOREOGRAPHER / Darren Carnall

Update 08/04/2015 with some thoughts on the Oliviers–>

Since the question has come up several times and i have inevitably battled with it myself since seeing the various plays, here are my personal thoughts about it. It is just my opinion and the result of working through various arguments with myself, trying to use my brain more than my heart in the process, although any theatre visit is essentially an emotional experience 🙂

So, the Oliviers…sorry if this will be a bit long… feeling slightly sad at the moment given RA’s recent questions as it seems he may not be able to make the ceremony. It is hard not to have expectations, but mine only went as far as wanting to see him there, see his name among nominees, see his smiling face and be able to watch it again and again 🙂 The Oliviers are still the biggest deal in London theatre business; they are not infallible, not being nominated does not mean you didn’t perform extremely well (neither i nor any of the people i know who have seen Medeea at the National can understand how McCrory was not nominated for her role this year, huge miss there…). There are wonderful actors who have been nominated again and again and haven’t won it. Take Jude Law for example, i forget how many times he was nominated, most of his appearances on stage have been praised but he hasn’t won it yet (and at least in the Henry V which i saw he was excellent). Same goes for Ralph Fiennes and i am sure many more. I don’t think Kenneth Branagh has one either, but most of his theatre has been done outside London and he’s got a slew of other awards for example. So they are important, but they are not the end all 🙂
I think looking back on all past years you could probably say getting nominated is of more significance in terms of how the profession perceives you than actually winning it. Just thinking of all the things i’ve seen on stage over the past 2 years it still amazes me that they are capable of choosing a winner at all. I’ve seen more than a few performances of strength and character that will stay with me for years to come. How can one possibly rank them as you never compare like with like. Is comedy less than tragedy? Is a 3h plus marathon more important than a shorter play, etc etc etc..
There are however also positive things to be said about the Oliviers: as far as i can tell they do largely reflect the reviews of theatre during the year, so one can expect to see things and people nominated who have done well and on which critics mostly agree in their praises. I also found that even if i am not always in agreement with all critics i do largely agree as a viewer with how they view things. On he stuff that i have seen i haven’t disagreed with them. It is also thankfully true that it is no longer driven by established actors; if you are a ‘name’ in London theatre it doesn’t mean you have better chances to win and you no longer have to be ‘part of the establishment’ to be noticed and nominated. Outstanding performances will shine through. The nominees this year are an excellent example in this respect. None of them have much to do with any establishment, one could argue most couldn’t be farther away from it if they tried 😉
So all in all good reviews + Olivier nomination is a huge pat on the back, it means you have done outstanding work that you should be proud of ( i hope you hear that RA! 😉 and all the other nominees as a matter of fact) .
Choosing this year, phew… i have no idea how on earth they will do it. I’ve been going back and forth on arguments with every play i saw and choices feel generally unfair. I did think that the length and complexity of the role should not matter and it should be just about how well you perform an individual role. But i’ve changed my mind somewhat since. Because at the end of the day some actors have exposed themselves to much bigger challenges and their roles do demand more of them and their skills. One could argue also they were chosen for the roles, but i think it does matter that one is ready to put himself out there, to give more, to go to physical and mental limits and beyond. All roles are not equal and excelling in some roles is considerably more difficult than in others. This is just my very personal opinion but after debating for long with myself back and forth i have decided that the challenges of the role do matter to me.
You could probably read that already through my rambling on the View from the bridge. In the end, even though Mark Strong is an excellent Carbone – and i think he definitely elevated the play – the challenges of roles such as Proctor in the Crucible or Jack in the Ruling Class are considerably more.
It is quite amazing to entertain, make the audience laugh with you, scare them witless, be soft and then ice-cold, tender and extremely violent and do this all equally convincingly in a 2h 40 min play (all this while ranting on with absolute clarity, changing accents and tones and jumping, dancing, going into fits, murdering with a vengeance, etc).
And it is equally amazing to go through the worst of human suffering and the most beautiful of human redemption in a 3h + arch, to create a character so full of flaws, so utterly broken and endear him to the audience in the moment of his death. To create a human life in a nutshell in just a few hours, to draw people in as much with words as with the tiniest of gestures, to make grown men weep and jump up in standing ovations, that is equally unique.
Here are two almost opposite ways of plunging yourself in the depths and heights of human emotion, one through dark bitter irony and the other through tenderness and sadness.
In a way RA put it very aptly, it is about playing hard, giving it all and holding absolutely nothing back.
I personally could not choose between James and Richard, but there is no doubt in my mind that it should be one of them. For me they redefined what can be achieved on a stage in terms of human emotion and experience (at least in what i was expecting to experience on a stage).