James McAvoy is a monk, an aristocrat, JC, God and the devil. He is Jack the son of an Earl and possibly a paranoid schizophrenic but he might also be the only sane one in his upper crust family. This is the setting of Peter Barnes 1968 sharply comic play The Ruling Class.
When Jack's father the 13th Earl of Gurney dies in an accident involving a tutu and a silk noose it opens up a power struggle for control of the estate. Jack, his only surviving son, is a voluntary patient at a private psychiatric clinic but his shrink, Dr Herder (Elliot Levey), thinks he can cure him. His uncle Sir Charlie Gurney (Ron Cook) wants him certified before he embarrasses the family but not before there is a new heir to the Gurney estate.
What unfolds on stage can be described as like watching some sort of absurd nightmarish dream - but in a good way, a really good way. It is like being inside the head of insane genius who likes to break into occasional song and dance routines (the most genius juxtaposition of the song Dry Bones and plot you'll ever see). Oh and the insane genius likes to ride a unicycle.
But this isn't just McAvoy's play. There are no duff parts in The Ruling Class and the supporting cast more than match him. Anthony O'Donnell particularly stands out as the drunken family butler Tucker who is secretly a communist. Forbes Masson and Paul Leonard take on multiple roles including wonderful turns as a couple of prim and easily shockable ladies in tweed who need to be convinced that Jack is sane. As a result Jamie Lloyd's production doesn't falter once.
The Ruling Class is as sharp as it is silly and as surreal as it is dark; it feels like a precursor to what Monty Python would start doing only a year after the play first appeared and yet some of its themes feel as pertinent today.
Afterwards you start to wonder what you actually watched, as if it was some sort of bizarre and vivid dream that lingers for a while after you've woken up. I can't wait to see it again.
* Just have to mention something about the costumes. Some great 60s/70s dresses for Kathryn Drysdale who plays Grace Shelley. And some superb suits for James McAvoy. I particularly liked his fitted, cream suit with burgundy flower shirt and carnation button hole and later a sleek black shiny number complete with high necked shirt and cravat. Email me if you want to know what he wears on the unicycle - I don't want to spoil the surprise.
* This is an energetic production where the timing needs to be perfect. Round of applause for the quick reactions of James McAvoy who spotted an accident about to happen. The star deftly swerved across the stage to move the antique looking desk that was about to be toppled over by a piece of moving set. He was so quick I'm sure a lot of people didn't even notice.
The Ruling Class is about 2 hours 45 minutes including interval and runs at the Trafalgar Studios until 11 April. Dates later in the run aren't sold out and £15 tickets are available for Monday performances - see the website for details.
Two direct links, obviously Mr McAvoy did that photo shoot with Mr W years ago and then there is Joshua McGuire who plays Jack's cousin in this but was also in The Hour