Who are the individuals that make up the British ‘elite’? Peter Barnes’ 1968 black comedy The Ruling Class, on at the Burton Taylor Studio until Saturday 18th May, brings into focus a series of eccentric and often outrageous upper-class characters.
Barnes’ play opens with the news that the 13th Earl of Gurney has committed suicide. The Gurney family are left wondering what is to be done with the late Earl’s estate. After reading his will, they come to realise that everything, title and all, is to be left to the Earl’s only son and heir, Jack (Tom Bannon). There’s a slight issue, however: Jack is a paranoid schizophrenic and is convinced he’s Jesus.
Barnes’ writing is unflinchingly satirical and endlessly dense. The new Earl of Gurney is gifted with the best lines, such as “last time I was kissed in a garden it turned out rather awkward.” Barnes doesn’t hesitate to make a joke at every opportunity and no topic, however dark, is out of bounds – “a bishop would never do anything that wasn’t legal,” claims Sir Charles, Jack’s uncle. The humour is cutting, and the characters deliciously caricatured, but laughing at the people onstage is entirely what Barnes wants us to do. Jack’s eventual ability to take his seat in the House of Lords allows Barnes to make a much wider point: the ‘ruling classes’ who lead us are just plain delusional.
One of the strongest elements of Stage Wrong Productions’ The Ruling Class is the outstanding central performance from Tom Bannon. From the pre-set, Bannon was getting laughs out of me – the image of him dancing around jovially in a ballet tutu reminded me of the epic scene in Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Bannon’s characterization is peppered with notes of absurdity. At one point Claire (Sir Charles’ wife, played by Eleanor Cousins Brown) asks him how he knows he’s God, and he flippantly remarks: “When I pray to him I find I’m talking to myself.” Moreover, Bannon physically commits to the role, leaping and bouncing around the stage with every word, and it really pays off – he is very exciting to watch.
Bannon is backed up by a strong cast. All cast members, as well as the directors Lev Crofts and Eddie Holmes-Milner, should be commended for the actors’ thoroughly well-thought-out performances. Particularly funny were Jack Parkin as the wobbly Bishop and Charlie Wade as the feeble Dinsdale (Sir Charles and Claire’s son).
Towards the end of the play I wasn’t sure if the directors were attempting to shift the play into a more serious gear. If so, I did not feel that the production’s solemnity hit the right notes – although this might just be the fault of the writing. The Ruling Class was at its best when the actors were playing to the audience for laughs.
The production would also have benefitted hugely from having music during transitions, or simply from the tightening of scene changes. At times the blackouts were a bit irregular, and actors could sometimes be heard in the wings. Although these things are perhaps pedantic, I often find that technical details like these take great performances to the next level.
It is always a delight to see comedy in Oxford, and The Ruling Class actualises an eccentric and absurdist sense of humour with great performances.