Peter Barnes's 1968 play The Ruling Class has been unseen in the West End since its original production (though it was subsequently made into a film in 1972 starring Peter O'Toole). But more than one friend has told me that they have appeared in it in University productions, so the play is far from forgotten.
It nevertheless remains a bold proposition for the West End - and a still radical one, in its portrait of a ruthless power struggle, seemingly remote for most spectators, amongst a titled family, and the heir is apparently mad and thinks he is God.
When he is asked, "How do you know you're God?", he replies, "Simple. When I pray to Him I find I'm talking to myself." That's both hilarious and truthful.
So, is this wild, unruly play, that stars James McAvoy who is by turns touching and terrific as the afflicted Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney. McAvoy renews a partnership with director Jamie Lloyd; together they launched the Trafalgar Transformed season with an equally bold Macbeth, and now they bring a stunning theatrical charge to this frequently startling play that's full of disparate theatrical influences from Ionesco to Joe Orton and Agatha Christie.
Lloyd's production comes embellished with some brilliant character actors that include Forbes Masson, Ron Cook, Anthony O'Donnell, Elliot Levey and Joshua McGuire, and a superb set by Soutra Gilmour.
It's a surprising but rewarding addition to the West End's current fare. Even the punishing seating of the Trafalgar Studios is worth enduring!
"McAvoy has tremendous, infectious fun as this charismatic holy fool, a role taken by Peter O’Toole in the 1972 film version. Eyes glinting with mischief, smiling beatifically, he takes Barnes’s luxuriantly freewheeling speeches at often breath-taking speed so that even when they jump the rails of sense, we’re still hooked."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Lloyd’s production keeps the action flowing smoothly on Soutra Gilmour’s unitary set and, in a 14-strong cast, there are good performances from Anthony O’Donnell as a Marxist butler, Ron Cook as Jack’s vindictive uncle and Kathryn Drysdale as a false Marguerite Gautier..."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"James McAvoy returns for a second season to director Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar presentations. His Jack Gurney is by turns charming and even more chilling than his Macbeth here last season; his smile can charm you across a flowery meadow or make you resolve never to risk walking down a darkened alley with him."
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times
"James McAvoy’s charismatic performance is a tour de force."
Henry Hitchings for Evening Standard