The Ruling Farce

The Ruling Class – Trafalgar Studios, until 11 April 2015 (Tickets

James McAvoy and Kathryn Drysdale in The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios. Credit: Jonas Persson

It is entirely possible that finance for this revival of Peter Barnes’ satire of the British class system was raised purely on the back of a one-sentence pitch: ‘enter James McAvoy riding a unicycle whilst wearing white underpants’.

It may well have been a tough sell otherwise, as The Ruling Class acts as an exemplar of the potential perils of reviving a near-forgotten play. Staged in 1968 it would have appeared as a topical satire that referenced the ideals of the summer of love and the pressures being place on the established elites by the social revolutions that rippled through the decade. Barnes’ sets an aristocratic establishment against the more hippyish virtues of McAvoy’s ‘JC’ – who has a particular fascination in bonding the pleasures of the spiritual and physical realms.

Credit: Jonas PerssonHowever by 2014 – with society bended to fit the tyranny of the financial markets and the ideals of the free-spirited long broken by an advertising industry that learnt it could get fat by selling homogenised difference – this world is almost unrecognisable from the one we ended living in.

While a play does not need to be relevant to be enjoyed, one must question why it has never seen a major revival since the Leeds Playhouse in 1983.  Given the canny programming of Jamie Lloyd’s critically and commercially successful Trafalgar Transformed seasons up to this point, it does seem like a curious choice.

However it turns out the play isn’t without interest. Whilst it is creaky and overlong – two and a half hours plus an interval for a satirical comedy? – there are several quite unexpected tonal shifts that means you are never quite sure what is going to come next.

I certainly was unprepared for a play from 1968 to open with a quite gruesome death by way of auto-erotic asphyxiation misadventure. Equally the fact that it suddenly breaks into vaudevillian song and dance routines for no discernible reason is baffling and pleasing in equal measure.

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Marion Deprez Is Gorgeous – Mimetic Festival

Marion Deprez Is Gorgeous – Marion Deprez

Showing as part of Mimetic Festival 2014 (17 – 29 November 2014)GORGE1.McHUGH

In reviewing ‘Marion Deprez Is Gorgeous’ there is a rather large elephant in the room. Can one seriously review the show without addressing the matter of the title? It has been written as a preposition rather than a question – which is a bold gesture and leaves no rooms for dissenting opinion – and the result is that Ms Deprez’ act must rest on the implicit assumption that she is, by objective measures, ‘gorgeous’.

GORGE15.McHUGHThe photos that accompany this review mean readers can form their own judgement about Ms Deprez’s looks whilst this reviewer will cloak his opinions behind the very British trait of discretion (which seems entirely appropriate given the extended Gallic riffs that undercut the performance) and look to review the show on its own merits.

The show is an examination of our stereotypical ideas of beauty – we have swans, butterflies and princesses – and how far someone can get on looks rather than talent. The act can appear that it is about to spiral into disaster and we are constantly assured by Ms Deprez that she isn’t actually funny, which – unsurprisingly – doesn’t do much to reassure those in the audience of a comedy show.

This is a high-risk manoeuvre and can lead to an increasingly antagonistic relationship between performer and audience. However it is a seam that has been mined for great riches by comics as varied as Tommy Cooper (Deprez’ acknowledged idol) and Stewart Lee. There is clearly plenty of comic potential to be had from working the unease that people feel when they are not entirely sure whether a show is going off the rails.

However it is important to understand this work in the context of clowning (although I suspect that there is a closer relationship to the Italian buffo and the figures from comic operas than traditional British notions of the clown) and that the comedy derives from pushing against the expectations of the audience

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Small family business yields little profit

A Small Family Business – Olivier @ National Theatre, until 27 August 2014

The National Theatre website currently advertises its revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business as running until the 27 August 2014; given middling reviews and, more damagingly, the desolate swath empty seats all around, this now seems a trifle optimistic. One wonders if Ayckbourn has lost touch with his heartland and whether that distant sound is of Geoffrey Howe readying his poison pen.

If the above analogy seems tortured and meaningless in 2014 then try sitting through two and half hours of Thatcher-era satirical farce played, almost without exception, as if actors were being paid by the minute.A_Small_Family_Bus_2875957b

Astute readers may have gathered that A Small Family Business is not considered a success. There are many problems with the production but at its heart is the play. Ayckbourn is a fine dramatist – one whose reputation has grown as the subtle radicalism of his writing and staging has become ever more appreciated – but his work has always run the risk of being too identified with the period that he critiques.

Whereas writers like Pinter and Beckett examine the universal, Ayckbourn’s skill has always been the microscopic. He is one of the great observers; capable of skewering the social charade and unveiling the fissure lines that runs through society, the unspoken conventions of the British that permeates life and ensures everyone conforms to their class.

Family businessThe conclusion that can be drawn from A Small Family Business is that we have entered a period where his targets are no longer recognisable. It may be quarter of a century old but the world that Ayckbourn has pictured seems embarrassingly quaint; quintessentially English, it is not comforting in the same way that we relax into a Miss Marple and it is not a period piece in the way we might enjoy something by Noel Coward.

With the benefit of hindsight it does not seem like biting satire but instead offers a naïve view of the world. Living in an era where companies like Amazon pay £4.2 million in UK tax on generated sales of over £4 billion, it is hard not to recognise the scale of the ethical corruption of big business. In this work the idea that a small family concern needs to pay off a private detective to the tune of £50,000 does not really hit the mark. It is all a little reminiscent of Austin Power’s Dr Evil:


Indeed one of the more charmingly amusing ideas in the play is the idea that Britain has any small family-run businesses at all, let alone ones that aren’t riddled by corruption.

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Hey man, chill out, it’s only religion

The human being’s guide to not being a dick about religion – Matt Thomas, Canal Café Theatre

I find watching up stand-up comedy an inherently stressful business. Presumably less stressful than for the person performing it, but as the lights go down I find myself with indentations in the middle of my palms where my fingernails have found themselves firmly embedded. Despite having seen plenty of dross in the theatre over the years – from my bad plays, to poor directors and awful actors – I never suffer from anything close to the paroxysms of fear that accompany watching comedy.

It must be something about the different expectations of the audience – a play can mean many things, even a ‘comedy’ does not necessarily lead an audience to assume they will be convulsing in fits of laughter. To put these Matt Thomasdifferences into perspective – there are many who consider Chekov to be quite a comedic playwright. It is fair to say that we are talking about the bar being set at a very different level.

So a one-hour monologue that bills itself somewhere between a play, a stand-up routine and a lecture, and that is also about religion. Are we having fun yet? In the event my fears were mainly without merit; Matt Thomas’ ‘The human being’s guide to not being a dick about religion’ proved an adroit and confident piece that skipped between jokes, set-pieces and information without the slackness that often slips into a one-man show.

If we are to place it on the comedic spectrum we are closer to the introspective intelligence of a Stewart Lee or a Doug Stanhope (without the razor-sharp deliberate audience alienation) than the ‘mates down the pub’ sub-standard preening of a Michael Macintyre or John Bishop. However Matt Thomas treads carefully on unstable ground and whilst routines that ruminate on the allegorical nature of the parables or the importance of the contexualisation of language may sound like a comedy desert, they are located within set-pieces that come across as a Live at the Apollo routine with added smarts.

This is exemplified by the standout routine of the show that demonstrates, with some brilliantly tongue-in-cheek visual aids and examples that subvert mainstream comedy tropes, the difficulty in communication when you are arguing across different planes of emotional engagement. It is a nimble leap of a fertile mind that refreshes a relatively tired genre of comedy and places the rationalism vs faith argument within scenarios that are immediately obvious and, more importantly, funny.

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Funny but flawed people

All New People – Duke  of York’s Theatre, until 28 April 2012

The tone for the evening is set pretty much immediately; the music playing over the PA system is so hipster-y that you spend the first 5 minutes waiting for Zooey Deschanel to emerge from the wings wearing a vintage polka-dot dress whilst eating a cupcake. Also immediately obvious to a jaded theatre-goer is that the audience waiting expectantly is notably younger than those entering Hay Fever, the Noel Coward-revival currently playing 50 metres down St Martins Lane.

Can we go as far as to make rather-too-obvious allusions about a baton changing hands? Well, yes and no, Braff’s ‘All New People’ is his first attempt at writing for the stage and there is a definite sense that he is a little green around the edges; in Coward the jokes slip down easier than the regularly consumed cocktails that punctuate his plays, for Braff the punchlines are clearly influenced by his background in TV, harsher and with a more obvious break for audience laughter. 

However there are signs that, if Braff sticks with it, he could be a genuinely talented new comic voice for the stage. And it is a voice that is desperately needed. Comedy appears to be treading water in the West End; if you strip out the celebrity revivals (Lenny Henry in Comedy of Errors), the old-hands (the annual Ayckbourn) and the reworkings (One Man, Two Guv’nors) then we are left with a rather bare cupboard.

Braff is a talented writer and knows how to craft a gag, either verbal or visual. The play starts with a well-judged physical comedy routine where Braff, about to hang himself, discovers he has nowhere to ash his final cigarette. The rest of the play is stuffed full of decent punchlines, even if it rather too often veers towards the profane but this could be a natural reaction against the restrictions of TV comedy. Braff has a very referential and post-modern style, which judges its target audience astutely. These are characters that clearly exist in the real-world, even if it is a much abstracted one.

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