By Peter Barnes
Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, 4 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
When a tweet of an uncaptioned photo of a house in Rochester, festooned with the St George flag and an iconic white van (the ultimate blue–collar British vehicle) parked outside it, can bring the career of the Shadow Attorney General to an end, we can safely say that class still matters in this country.
All the more reason then for Jamie Lloyd to take the brave step of reviving, after 46 years, this '60s hit which made a rude splash in our theater scene just two years after the end of censorship. It’s the closing play of Season 2 of Lloyd’s brilliant Trafalgar Transformed series, one that has attracted a hungry, youthful, demographic back to the theatre.
This razor sharp and deliciously caustic satire straddles two extremes of the class war. In the first half our protagonist is all peace and love, by the second half he has been transformed into the epitome of a Tebbit’esque reactionary. The conceit is that by curing his insanity and “bringing him to his senses”, they have unleashed a savage
James McAvoy is Jack, a paranoid schizophrenic with a Messiah complex. He inherits the title of the 14th Earl of Gurney after his father passes away following an episode of auto–erotic asphyxiation. Singularly unsuited to a life in the upper echelons of the aristocracy, Jack finds himself at the center of a ruthless power struggle within his family as they strive to uphold the family honor and keep the loot.
McAvoy completely banishes any memory of Peter O’Toole, who played it in the West End in ’69 and who was Oscar nominated for the film version in ’72. Vocally he masters even the more florid passages, including Tourettian outbursts, and he just oozes star charisma. He bubbles with a feverish energy throughout and despite his slender frame, totally commands the stage for nearly three hours.
Ron Cook, in posh spiv mode, is a joy too as the unscrupulous uncle, Sir Charles, who tries to marry Jack off to his mistress Grace (Kathryn Drysdale) in the hopes of producing an heir so they can lock Jack up in an asylum. Jack has an ally though, in Charles’ wife, Lady Clare (a silky smooth Serena Evans), who also seduces Jack’s psychiatrist Dr Herder (Elliot Levey) to get her way. Also in the mix is a dodgy Bishop, two frightening battle–axes from the village, a drunken revolutionary butler and even a competing Scottish Messiah, McKyle, played with scenery chewing delight by the comic, Forbes Masson, who also gives us six other parts as does the gloriously versatile Paul Leonard. The ambition and scale of the piece reminds one why Barnes' other stage work struggled to get produced.
Barnes summed up his approach to drama as never settling for the “deadly servitude of naturalism” and it is a joy to see how Lloyd and his regular designer, the brilliant Soutra Gilmour, have risen to the challenge. Her approach to this space is both fresh and invigorating – be it musty drawing rooms or fields of sunflowers.
The play combines a ferocious mix of hilarity and horror, taking in sitcom, satire, slapstick and soliloquy. There’s even song and dance numbers, including a supremely barmy take on The Ink Spots' ‘Dry Bones’.
Barnes is not in the business of balance either, which is refreshing. He’s a polemicist, setting out to mercilessly expose the foibles of the nobility but he makes you laugh, which is what redeems him. The postures might be crude but the intention is to wake you from your slumber and at a time where revolutionary currents have been unleashed again in Europe, it has achieved a topicality once more.
It ends with the barking mad Earl giving his gibberish maiden speech in the Lords, only to be applauded for his common sense. Here Lloyd over–eggs the pudding. You don’t need to have cobwebs hanging from their Lordships. Tune in to Parliament Channel any day of the week and the torpid reality will be much more alarming. A small mis–step though, in a wonderfully conceived and executed revival of this important play.