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.