The Ruling Class

Tue 14th – Sat 18th November 2017


Conor McKee

at 23:42 on 15th Nov 2017



This is not a subtle play, nor a subtle rendering of it, but the performance succeeds in bringing us the spectacle of Peter Barnes' manic caricatures – the inhabitants of a bygone age of aristocratic privilege. Its '60s class conscious satire has been blunted by time but its development of a parallel between the self-constructed world of a man of leisure and the introspective otium of madness remains intriguing. The play was held together by several excellent comic performances which drew laughs from start to finish and an impressive bout of applause.

Especially effective was Milo Callaghan as Jack, Earl of Gurney, the play's lead and a schizophrenic who has appointed himself messiah, ascending from lord to Lord carried by delusions of grandeur. He succeeded in playing the extremes of this character, both the blasphemous and extravagant 'Lord of Love' of the first half, and the monster who returns in the guise of normality in the play's dark finale. Though Jack's ranting 'Ripper' soliloquies are rather too blatant, the play's darkly comedic sleight of hand is one of its finest features. The reversal of Jack's two sides shows that the madman and aristocrat can swap places with no one on stage any the wiser.

At times I found that the play’s hyperbolic criticism wore thin. Its reduction of all conservative politics to aristocratic reactionary sentiment was especially weak and so many of Barnes’ characters preserve their comic potential at the cost of revealing themselves to be straw men.

The scenery was sparse but still relatively effective. A framed rorschach test descends to demarcate scenes in the psychologist’s office and the stylised armchairs of a stately home revolve to reveal gaudy neon crosses, a projection of Jack's self-announced divinity. Through interspersing scenes with patriotic hymns and parodic allusions to the Anglican liturgy, the director reminds us of the pervasive but attenuated forms of religion which emerge as social boundary markers at the cost of creedal integrity.

The play was at its best when it juxtaposed the internecine scheming of Sir Charles (Emil Sands) and Lady Clair (Sophie Atherton) with the antics of the protagonist. By dismissing his friends’ warnings that the family is undermining his inheritance as ‘paranoia’, Jack brings home the plays ultimate satirical message: the world of the upper class is so dysfunctional that even a schizophrenic who thinks he’s Jesus wouldn’t believe it.


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