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The Ruling Class

by on 14 May 2018

Love Is Madness, Violence Is Sanity

The Ruling Class

by Peter Barnes

Teddington Theatre Club at Hampton Hill Playhouse until 18th May

A review by Georgia Renwick

“Lord”, it’s a word and a title with undoubtedly strong associations. Of power, of reverence, of subservience, of devotion. But placed on the head of a paranoid schizophrenic, heir to an Earldom? It’s enough to strike terror, inspire delirious laughter, and shake up the lives of everyone who must bow to him…

Peter Barnes 1968 play The Ruling Class, famously featuring the arresting performance of Peter O’Toole, was a subversive cultural landmark of the late 1960s stage and later, screen. It’s “sledgehammer satire” (Newsweek, 1972) took aim at British peerage, politics, public-schooling and our faith in the ‘powers that be’. Fifty years on surely, it must be antiquated, because we’ve sorted all that inequality stuff out since then, haven’t we?

Barry Evans (a self-confessed Barnes fan) boldly brings the first revival of The Ruling Class to the stage since Brexit joined the political fray. Fifty years on it turns out, it’s still timely and distinctly uncomfortable to be watching Barnes’ production disrobe our Lordly peers.

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TTC_2018_Ruling Class_Dress Rehearsal_Promo-2Stepping into the shoes of Peter O’Toole, Dane Hardie plays Jack, the heir to the title of the 14th Earl of Gurney. When his father, daringly played by Charles Halford, dies in an autoerotic asphyxiation accident, Jack is called upon to take up his title and place in the House of Lords. There’s just one problem. He believes he is a Lord alright, but it is the Lord all creation, Jesus Christ that he is certain he has a claim to be. His loud proclamations of “God is Love”, delusions of grandeur and insistence upon sleeping upright on a homemade crucifix are running the risk of ruining the family’s reputation, and so in a desperate attempt to continue the Gurney name, his meddling family vow to marry him off to dutifully produce an heir, and then have him put away in a mental asylum. Jeremy Gill brings an unpleasant squirming quality to Jack’s greedy uncle, Sir Charles – you just know he would be able to wriggle his way out of anything – whilst Charlie Golding’s artfully executed lisp and overt campness make Jack’s politician cousin a humorously endearing slimeball.

TTC_2018_Ruling Class_Dress Rehearsal_Promo-7Unfortunately for them, their plots are foiled by the Earl’s German Psychiatrist (the straight-faced Stephen Boyd) who ‘cures’ Jack, treating him with ‘Old Testament’ electricity until he is able to learn to adapt and fit into ‘reality’. He remains a Lord, but of a different ilk; “Do you still believe you are Christ, my Lord?”. His sanity is proved by the Etonian rugby chants that replace his former Godly hymns, and his newfound realisation that in social circles it’s customary to “slaughter everything that moves”. Thusly, he is prepared to face his truly Lordly duty to his country. In Barnes’ bitingly satirical world, Jack is taught that love is madness, and violence is sanity.

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Hardie, as Jack, cuts a figure of boundless energy in the first act, cavorting around the stage full-tilt with manic glee in a fetching white “God is Love” tank top. Listen closely, it can be hard to keep up! As he heaves himself up onto his cross and hurls himself down onto the floor with admirable, most likely a bit painful, dedication. In act two he retches, he writhes, and is prone to fits of anger as he struggles to fit into his sharp new suit, and his new attitude.

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Barnes’ writing is rich with influences from a whole host of writers, from Sheridan to Shakespeare, it is customary therefore that the Lord is undercut and upstaged by his serving classes. In The Ruling Class this takes the form of Daniel Wain, who completely steals the show as Tucker the Bolshie Butler, “peeing on the Wedgewood dinner plates”. His simpering smile stretches from ear to ear as he picks up after the hapless Earls, then cracks into his own manically mischievous grin just when he thinks no-one is looking. His singing, dancing moments of rebellious glee are infectiously brilliant. As he dances over an ill-fated character he cries, eyes wide… “One less! One Less!”.

Wes Henderson Roe’s set design cleverly divides the stage space up with a skilfully rendered projection. Among other set pieces, the roving bed was a clear favourite, comically wheeled in and out at the opportune moments for, ah, missing the action.

Snatches of song and voiceover provide context and insight fitting with the time-period of the piece, thoughtfully designed by John Pyle. On occasion sound effects were perhaps a little too relied upon where they might have been rendered live, it would have been a treat to hear live singing from Rosy Addison-Dunne for example. One song we did have the chance to hear sung live was a lesser known verse of All Things Bright and Beautiful, which made quite a shocking appearance!

Reviewers at Mark Aspen don’t get tired of saying it, so we hope you don’t get tired of reading it, but TTC have once again made a very bold choice of material here. There was more than enough tittering in the audience on opening night to tell you that this off-the-wall 1960s humour is not to everyone’s tastes; Barnes’ relentless mad-cap humour is not for the faint-hearted, or the easily offended! But if you can stomach the titillation, the pay-off is richly rewarding. Although you ought to hope so, it won’t actually make you rich. If you learn anything from Barnes’ production, it’s better to be out when the executors come knocking!

Georgia Renwick
May 2018

Photography by Sarah J Carter


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