Though once a significant theatrical presence, the late Peter Barnes is rarely mentioned nowadays. So the prospect of James McAvoy taking the lead in Jamie Lloyd’s full-throttled revival of his 1968 tragi-comedy, The Ruling Class, is pulling in the punters. They won’t be disappointed either – McAvoy is totally mesmerising as Jack, the paranoid schizophrenic heir apparent of the fictional Earl of Gurney.  When the old man dies unexpectedly (his penchant for auto-asphyxiation sex games wearing a tutu goes fatally wrong) Jack emerges from the asylum where he’s been locked away for seven years, still convinced he’s God, Christ and the Holy Ghost all rolled into one. Dressed in white, his behaviour is not only an embarrassment to his relatives but also stands in the way of his scheming uncle (Ron Cook) who wants to control the family fortune.

When his psychiatrist (Elliot Levey) makes a last ditch effort to effect a cure, Jack emerges a changed man. Now clad in black, he believes he’s Jack the Ripper. Meanwhile the old Marxist butler, Tucker (Anthony O’Donnell), takes to drink and stays in service despite a significant inheritance from his old master.   

Barnes has a nimble way with words, and although his absurd satire on the upper echelons of society tends to be overblown, it proves an intriguing combination of the dated and the topical – and one in which it’s impossible to guess what will happen next. McAvoy’s performance is simply superb – he sings, he dances, he even rides a unicycle – in a mercurial performance which will surely see him up there with the best actor nominees when it’s time to dish out the awards.

Meanwhile, in the tiny theatre downstairs, Clara Brennan’s restrained two hander charts the rollercoaster relationship of former dancer Boa and her Pulitzer prize-winning war correspondent husband, Louis. Present and past are interwoven with a shift in lighting, as Boa turns to drink and the couple, though devoted, struggle to find a contented equilibrium through the years and across continents.

The writing of this play suffers somewhat from a tendency be over-literary and to tell rather than show. But there’s an underlying tenderness to this short, poignant piece which is given additional resonance by the casting of the excellent Harriet Walter opposite Guy Paul, her real life spouse.

The Ruling Class

Trafalgar Studios

Whitehall, SW1A 2DY

Tube Charing Cross

 till 11th April    

£15.00- £52.50 + Premium seats



Trafalgar Studios (2)

Whitehall, SW1A 2DY

Tube Charing Cross

 Till 7th March    

£17.50 – £30.00