OH FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE…
Sometimes in the reviewing business there’s an almost irresoluble conflict between detached appreciation and wincing personal indifference: a temptation to stick to reportage and lay the feeling self aside. I am almost there with this first revival of Peter Barnes’ 1969 play, a semi-surreal black comedy. It is an unresolved, furious blend of bouffon farce, adolescent class outrage, glee at the fact that stage censorship ended one year earlier, and ferocious tastelessness – up to and including a couple of lines on the Holocaust. The same writer did set a farce in Auschwitz.
As you’d expect in Jamie Lloyd’s second season of the enterprising, popular and serious Trafalgar Transformed, it’s performed and directed with headlong skill. And designed by Soutra Gilmour: whose surreal delusional interludes (especially the giant dinosaur-rat-Satan thing) gave me actual pleasure. James McAvoy plays Jack, heir to an ancient earldom after his Dad kicks off the gross-out tone by accidentally going too far in his nightly autoerotic ritual with a silken noose. The family compete to be the most cartoonishly aristocratic, a contest won by dim Dinsdale the Tory candidate (you see where this is going). They are horrified because Jack is a paranoid schizophrenic who believes he is God (a rather old-fashioned trope these days). He talks in tongues, sleeps on an upright crucifix and daubs GOD IS LOVE across the glorious bare McAvoy torso.
The only two credible supporting characters are Kathryn Drysdale as the non-aristocratic wife they marry him to to produce a sane heir; and the genuinely hilarious Anthony O’Donnell as the butler who is secretly a one-man Trotskyist cell. Oh, and Forbes Masson, who never disappoints, is a county lady straight out of Little Britain, a detective, and another lunatic who thinks he is God and whose competition apparently shakes Jack into sanity. So yes, some fun. Though nothing to do with real mental illness, real aristocracy, or real anything at all.
After the interval Jack seems cured, but of course is not: suave aristo arrogance is no guarantee of sanity in this self-consciously impertinent piece, rather the reverse. He reveals that he is now the God of Vengeance, declares it is 1888, and conjures up London fog so – so no prizes for guessing which Jack he is being now. Cue an erotic disembowelling, to happy shrieks from the loyal younger McAvoyites in the stalls (some vg prices, kids, go for it).
McAvoy in this last act does demonstrate that he is becoming a fine stage actor, snapping from smoothness to ferocity in seconds, even cartooning his own Richard III, performing a good cane-twirling stepdance and singing the Eton Boating Song. That gets him certified sane by a posh doctor. Of course it does. So, here you have dated 1969 agitprop, a proto-Pythonesque and sub-Joe-Orton raspberry to the world of Macmillan and Douglas-Home and anyone-for-tennis plays; an aged squib revived for the election season and the Guy Fawkes mask set. OK, I hated it. But McAvoy is brilliant, and will find better plays for his gifts.
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