written by Peter Barnes
directed by Jamie Lloyd
cast: Ron Cook, Michael Cronin, Kathryn Drysdale, Serena Evans, Paul Leonard, Elliot Levey, Forbes Masson, James McAvoy, Joshua McGuire, Anthony O’Donnell, Rosy Benjamin, Andrew Bloomer, Oliver Lavery, Geoffrey Towers
seen February 25 2015, Trafalgar Studios
Englishmen like to hear the truth about themselves.
Warning: I usually try to keep my reviews spoiler free (with the exception of Shakespeare), but the nature of this play makes it impossible. If you are still to see this: congratulations, you’re in for a real treat. Do yourself the favour of being surprised and please do come back, read on and comment after you have seen it. I’ll just say that I have so far seen three out of the four best actor nominees from today’s Olivier nominations and while all three were great in their own way, I’m rooting for James McAvoy.
End of Spoiler Free Zone
Can someone tell me why this play isn’t performed more often?! Not even three minutes into the play and I was already glad I bought the playtext along with the programme. I tried to think of which line to put into the short description and ended up with one or two bookmarks.
The play starts with the 13th Earl of Gurney shuffling off this mortal coil in a rather unusual manner. I was glad it was clearly visible how they ensured the actor not suffering the same fate; scenes like that one tend to make me a bit nervous. His brother, sister-in-law and dim-witted wannabe politician nephew Dinsdale immediately start to scheme how they can get around the will by having the new Earl – a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks he’s God – married off and get him certified as soon as an heir is born.
Upon the 14th Earl of Gurney’s entry, he is described in the playtext as having a ‘magnetic personality’, so no pressure there with casting the lead. Additionally, the actor has to sing, dance, unicyle (can this be used as a verb?) and be believable in his journey from God of Love who ‘can defend his beliefs with great skill’ to member of the house of lords/Jack the Ripper Jr.
Everyone who has seen James McAvoy’s film work (especially Filth) knows he’s good at what he’s doing, but his Jack – or ‘J.C.’ – is something else. He has the audience’s attention right from the start and even cynical old me caught myself irrationally wanting JC to succeed when he was trying to perform a miracle. Not that it’s that hard to root for someone with a family like that, played masterfully especially by Ron Cook (Sir Charles) and Serena Evans (Lady Claire) as well as Kathryn Drysdale who actually has to belt out part of La Traviata’s drinking song as actress Grace Shelley, the future Lady Gurney. Even Tucker, the faithful butler, turns out not to be what he seems.
As soon as the drinking song first got played on the flute, I was cursing inwardly because I can never get it out of my head when I hear it somewhere. I shouldn’t have fretted though, because it was ‘Dem Bones’ (not Alice in Chains”Them Bones’, the other one) that took up residence in my brain for days. Regarded superficially this was a funny, surprising sing and dance interlude (and quite the workout for the actors involved). For me it was the moment it became chillingly clear that the inner fight of JC vs Jack had already been decided in favour of Jack, and the 1888 one to boot.
Elliot Levey is finally not playing a complete sleazeball, but JC’s German psychiatrist who gets entangled in the Gurneys’ mess. While quoting Goethe’s Faust is all good and well, there is no ‘p’ in ‘verdammt’. 😉
I said earlier that I was glad to have bought the playtext. This is for several reasons; firstly, I am likely to actually re-read this from time to time. I could have put hilarious quotes in this post to the point of copyright infringement and would still have had some left. Secondly, it was really interesting to see what changes were made in this production. The flowers that are imaginary in the playtext actually came up through the floor in the theatre; Mrs. Piggot-Jones and Mrs. Treadwell weren’t male actors pulling a Lady Bracknell initially. I preferred this version with multi-roled Forbes Masson and Paul Leonard enhancing the women’s ridiculousness.
As an added bonus, the guy sitting next to me on the plane looked at the book, rolled his eyes (maybe he thought I was a religious nutcase) and decided it was safe to talk company secrets with his work-mate (think huge, well known-corporation) in Austrian dialect. Him losing all colour in his face when I made a call at Vienna airport was almost as funny as the play.
I was surprised by English publications branding the play as dated. If you only see the set design and 70s clothes worn in the production maybe, and even then you could argue it fits with Richard III and East is East. However with all the debate about class currently happening, I’m really wondering how someone can consider The Ruling Class to be non-relevant. Seems suspiciously like being blinkered to me.
Whatever the case may be, I’m glad I knew about this business trip to England early enough to get tickets for this play. A tiny part of my job is watching new TV series and movies and I had just done that for three days and nights with one more day to go, so one might think I’d have had enough of staring at acting for some time. Not even remotely; there’s always room for good theatre.
To misappropriate a line of Grace Shelley:
It happens all the time. On certain nights. In front of the right audience. When the magic works.
I’d say the magic worked big time at Trafalgar Studios.
PS: Could Jamie Lloyd and Canadian director Chris Abraham please work on something together?