Theatre Review: The Ruling Class

Date Posted: 29/01/2015

Sarah Holt reviews The Ruling Class starring James McAvoy.

Summing up The Ruling Class isn’t easy. Entire study guides have been written on this play. Even the programme features seven pages of contextual information – about both playwright Peter Barnes and the socio-economic climate that the text epitomises today.

As a group, however, I doubt you’ll be taking your notebooks to the theatre with you. And although you might discuss whether Barnes deliberately put Brechtian theatre devices into his play, over wine in the interval, I guess what really matters is whether you’ll have a good time.

And an appraisal of that starts with the plot. If you aren’t familiar with the story for The Ruling Class, the script focuses on Jack (played by James McAvoy) – a possible schizophrenic with a god complex who inherits the title of 14th Earl of Gurney after his father passes away.

Unsuited to a life in the upper class, Jack finds himself in the centre of a power struggle with the rest of his family over inheritance and dynasty.

So far, so good you might think. But that’s just the half of it.

Barnes’ self-confessed aim with his work was to create a contrast between the tragic and the ridiculous and to overcome ‘the deadly servitude of naturalism’.

In striving for this, the playwright interspersed the script for The Ruling Class with themes, ideas and theatrical devices that could have come from down the rabbit hole.

There’s a unicycle, men in drag, and a gobbledegook language that sounded a lot like Orkish. On the darker side of things there’s asphyxiation, talk of lobotomy, electrocution, murder and a sinister giant furry rat character – although it could have been a newt. 

In parts the play feels like Carry On Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, at others it’s gritty, raw and edge-of-your seat stuff.

Plotline aside, I think this play will make you laugh. It’s peppered with witty two liners like ‘We think you should take a wife’ ‘who from’. And ‘How do you know you’re god?’ ‘Simple. When I pray to him. I find myself talking to myself.’

If you like farce, you’ll also enjoy the seemingly spontaneous song and dance numbers, especially the all-cast rendition of Them Bones Them Bones Them Dry Bones.

I’d also place a bet that you’ll enjoy the cast. James McAvoy delivers an energetic portrayal of a man on the edge. He turns his character’s mental ticks into as much the audience’s battle as his own. Some of his opening lines are a little panto, but these asides to the audience are pretty much forgotten as Jack cedes to his daemons.

Joshua McGuire does a great job at playing a toff, and Kathryn Drysdale, who you might remember from TV’s Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, delivers a compelling performance as Jack’s wife.

I left the theatre feeling surreal; wondering to what extent this play, with all its devices of juxtaposition and delusion really mirrored the world we live in today – after all, this play was first penned in 1968.

Then I passed a clown playing Hotel California on a mouth organ in the tunnels of Charing Cross Station and I thought maybe Barnes kept a crystal ball in his writing draw.

The Ruling Class can accommodate groups, particularly on mid-week matiness. The show will run until 11th April at Trafalgar Studios. Show times are Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm and Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm.

For more information or to book visit

Photo credit: Jay Brooks

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