First published in The Times, Monday July 31 2017
Peter Barnes’s anarchic satire on privilege and entitlement must have seemed incredibly close to the knuckle when it was first staged at the Nottingham Playhouse in November 1968. The play’s premiere arrived at the end of a year marked by popular uprisings against elites across the globe, from the student protests that brought France to a shuddering halt for a few days in May to the escalation of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the Prague Spring and the first rumblings of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Nearly 50 years on, and in the light of several decades’ worth of irreverent expressions of rage against public institutions, The Ruling Class is undoubtedly showing its age. While the play’s mingling of farce with horror can be unsettling at times, Barnes’s pile-driving approach to his satirical targets is more likely to provoke a collective shrug of the shoulders from contemporary audiences than a ripping out of the seats in the auditorium.
Pic: Douglas McBride
The play has an undisputable curiosity appeal, however, and this entertaining revival, directed by John Durnin, ably balances the rather overwrought comedy with some genuinely disquieting moments. Pitlochry’s production also benefits from a fine, admirably restrained central performance from Jack Wharrier as Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, a paranoid schizophrenic, who is disparaged and manipulated by his ruthless uncle, Sir Charles (Dougal Lee), only to murderously turn the tables following a course of electroshock therapy.
Much humour is gleaned en route in Durnin’s production from the supporting cast, notably Ian Marr’s delightfully impudent butler, Tucker, and Alan Steele, as the late earl, with a fondness for autoerotic asphyxiation. Nonetheless, the play’s heady mix of genres, from black comedy to parodies of the country house mystery and Victorian penny dreadful, with even a touch of burlesque thrown in for good measure, proves patience-testing long before the end.
Pic: Douglas McBride
Wharrier makes a good fist of holding together these disparate elements. His transition from New Testament God, with a mission to spread love and charity, to heartless Jack the Ripper, is accomplished with such a lack of ostentation that it sends a chill through the room. The climactic scene, in which the “cured” Jack rants in favour of capital punishment to cadaverous lords, is particularly effective. The design, by Adrian Rees, nicely invokes the clash of Sixties threads and sensibilities with the aged period backdrop.