×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: James McAvoy in ‘The Ruling Class’

With:
Rosy Benjamin, Andrew Bloomer, Ron Cook, Michael Cronin, Kathryn Drysdale, Serena Evans, Oliver Lavery, Paul Leonard, Elliot Levey, Forbes Masson, James McAvoy, Joshua McGuire, Anthony O’Donnell, Geoffrey Towers.

Director Jamie Lloyd’s takeover of London’s Trafalgar Studios has let loose star actors on great parts — a throwback to the golden era of scenery-chewing stage behemoths. As the 14th Earl of Gurney, a role Peter O’Toole dispatched on film, James McAvoy takes their mantle and runs, turning in the sort of crazed, charismatic performance you’ll tell your grandkids about one day. Who cares that Peter Barnes’s dotty 1968 satire creaks like the class system it sends up? McAvoy sells it like snake oil.

He starts in sackcloth, returning from a monastic retreat to inherit the Gurney estate, after his father’s death by misadventure. (Read: auto-erotic asphyxia, that age-old aristocratic pass-time.) The dismay of Jack’s tweedy relatives make sense when he pulls back his cowl and pronounces himself the Resurrection and the Life. “Call me JC,” he says. His reasoning’s sound: “When I pray to Him, I find I’m talking to myself.”

Soon McAvoy’s floating around in a white suit and a paisley shirt, with “God Is Love” scrawled on his chest, a modern-day Messiah in the mold of John Lennon. In polite, upper-class society, however, goodness looks like madness, and only after Jack’s been coached towards cruelty by Elliot Levey’s wily psychiatrist is he accepted as the rightful heir, fit for the House of Lords and its cobwebbed crones. In the process, however, he models himself on his Victorian namesake: Jack the Ripper.

Satirically, the target’s off: Britain’s aristocracy ain’t what it used to be and today’s power-players are bankers and oligarchs, not heirs and disgraces. Barnes can’t be blamed for that though, and Soutra Gilmour’s design eschews historicity for cartoonish flair, all taxidermy and floral prints. Lloyd, too, relishes the play’s lunacy, careening into delirious song-and-dance numbers and encouraging much hammy harrumphing from his cast. Even if it lampoons everything and harpoons nothing, there’s no denying that this is a show with real swagger.

McAvoy himself is pure confidence. He flings himself around his crucifix as if practicing parkour and throws-shapes like Michael Jackson reborn. He sings. He dances. He rides around on a unicycle dressed in only his y-fronts and socks.

His invulnerability is an electrifying thing to watch and it makes for some extraordinary choices. At one point, McAvoy drops to a squat, clutches his knees and waddles about like a rotund dwarf. When he crosses himself, he tips into Tony Manero territory. It’s a dazzling turn: so unpredictable that you daren’t take your eyes off him. Look back and you might find him transmogrified.

He’s less persuasive as the rip-off Ripper though, teetering over into melodramatic, cloak-and-dagger posturing. His outmoded register matches the regressive politics, but it can’t spring surprises like his misguided Messiah.

He’s well supported by a company having itself a hoot: Ron Cook as a blustery old-boy, Joshua McGuire, a right weed in tweed and Anthony O’Donnell, droll as an undercover Trotskyite. Forbes Masson and Paul Leonard make the most of their various cameos, from mutton-chopped old crusties or well-to-do Women’s Institute members. It’s all so much fun that you hardly notice the heart it’s missing.

ruling-class-review-james-mcavoy

London Theater Review: James McAvoy in 'The Ruling Class'

Trafalgar Studios, London; 380 seats; £69.50 ($105) top. Opened, reviewed Jan 27, 2015. Running time: 2 HOURS 30 MINS.

Production: An Ambassador Theatre Group production of a play in two acts by Peter Barnes.

Creative: Written by Peter Barnes; Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Sets and costumes, Soutra Gilmour; lighting, Jon Clark; sound and music, Ben and Max Ringham; choreography, Darren Carnall; Musical direction, Huw Evans.

Cast: Rosy Benjamin, Andrew Bloomer, Ron Cook, Michael Cronin, Kathryn Drysdale, Serena Evans, Oliver Lavery, Paul Leonard, Elliot Levey, Forbes Masson, James McAvoy, Joshua McGuire, Anthony O’Donnell, Geoffrey Towers.

More Legit

  • CAROL CHANNING HERSCHFELD. Actress Carol Channing

    Remembering Carol Channing: A Master of Channeling the Power of Personality

    There was only one Carol Channing, and her outsize personality was a source of delight to many fans — and imitators. Gerard Alessandrini’s stage spoof “Forbidden Broadway” had many incarnations over the years, including the 1994 edition when an audience member was selected every evening to come onstage and impersonate Carol Channing with the cast. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda Among Celebrities Remembering Carol Channing

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bernadette Peters are among the slew of celebrities taking to Twitter to pay tribute to late singer, comedienne and actress Carol Channing. Known for her starring roles in Broadway’s “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” the legend of the stage and screen died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, [...]

  • What the Constitution Means to Me

    Listen: How Things Got Scary in 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    For a decade, writer-performer Heidi Schreck had wanted to write a play inspired by her experiences as a teen debater. But over the years the show started to develop into something both urgently political and deeply personal — and things got scary. In the Broadway-bound “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Schreck reimagines her speech-and-debate [...]

  • Carol Channing Dead

    Carol Channing, Star of Broadway's 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' Dies at 97

    Larger-than-life musical stage personality Carol Channing, who immortalized the characters of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!,” has died. She was 97. Channing died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Her publicist B. Harlan Boll confirmed the news. He wrote, “It is with [...]

  • 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    'What the Constitution Means to Me' Transfers to Broadway

    “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a buzzy Off-Broadway production that counts Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem among its fans, is making the move uptown. The play will come to Broadway this spring for a 12-week limited run at the Helen Hayes Theater. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is one part civics lesson, one [...]

  • Choir Boy review

    Broadway Review: 'Choir Boy'

    Honestly, I was afraid that “Choir Boy” — the sweetly exuberant account of a gifted prep school boy’s coming of age, written by “Moonlight” Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney — would be swallowed up in a Broadway house, after winning us over in an Off Broadway staging in 2013.  But aside from the odd set [...]

  • Jason Robert Brown

    Listen: How Ariana Grande Got Jason Robert Brown to Madison Square Garden

    Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown never expected to find himself performing onstage at Madison Square Garden. But he did — thanks to his pal Ariana Grande. Brown met Grande before she was a superstar, when she was in the 2008 Broadway cast of his teen musical “13.” The two have kept in touch ever since [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content