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First Nighter: James McAvoy Rules 'The Ruling Class,' A Feminized Treasure Island,' 'Di and Viv and Rose' on Friendship

02/20/2015 07:12 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

When Peter Barnes decided the ruling English class was nutty, he created Jack Gurney and wrote The Ruling Class, a hellzapoppin satire during most of which Gurney (James McAvoy) contends he's Jesus. Since he's just inherited the Gurney holdings and is now the fourteenth earl of Gurney -- the thirteenth (Paul Leonard) mistakenly hanged himself in a funny prologue by way of autoerotic asphyxiation -- the rest of the angry family jolly Jack along until he does produce an heir.

The set-up, beautifully directed by Jamie Lloyd at Trafalgar Studios, means that Jack's father, Charles Gurney (Ron Cook), and mother Claire (Serena Evans) encourage him temporarily, in particular to marry fecund Grace Shelley (Kathryn Drysdale). Also mincing round for the time being is Dinsdale Gurney (Joshua McGuire). At hand as well are Jack's psychotherapist Dr. Herder (Elliot Levey) and Gurney family retainer Tucker (Anthony O'Donnell), who on inheriting 20,000 pounds at the former earl's death becomes outrageously uppity.

As Barnes's two acts caper along, a couple of corpses come to be (blood supplied by Pigs Might Fly). The mad author even gets around to Jack's taking his place in the House of Lords, and that's a sight to see and hear. In addition, there are any number of times when the Gurneys and mates break into musical numbers like the amusing oldie "Dem Bones, Dem Bone, Dem Dry Bones," nicely drilled by Darren Carnal.

Throughout the impeccable production on Sutra Gilmore's posh set -- with buck's heads placed high on six pilasters -- the cast performs their precision send-ups of upper-class behavior agilely.

Leading them is McAvoy, who's done yeoman work on stage and screen for a few decades now, but as Jack Gurney, a. k. a. Jesus, he's giving his most dashing performance. Bearded and trim, he's fully prepared to deliver a semi-religious line, kick up a heel, wield a knife so it catches the light and look smart in formal attire.

There are no firsts among flashy equals in the ensemble. A stalwart like Cook comes through as the livid Charles. Indeed, they're all as polished as Lloyd expected them to be while giving the powerful English upper set a holy what-for.

*****

What can be done on the National Theatre's vast Olivier stage never ceases to astonish. This time, it's Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, as adapted by Bryony Lavery, directed by Polly Findlay and designed by Lizzie Clachan.

And don't underestimate the Lavery-Findlay-Clachan triumvirate, since perhaps the can't-miss aspect of this mounting is its implicit feminist statement. What's the most notable aspect of the go at the Stevenson classic? Jim Hawkins is a girl and played with great gusto by Patsy Ferran. When early on Jim is asked whether she's a he or a she, she tartly replies that's her "business," but subsequently she's always identified as a girl.

Lavery and Findlay don't do too much further fussing around with the familiar plot. As usual, Jim boards the ship -- well, the crew is made up of men and women -- falls at first for the line Long John Silver (Arthur Darvill) hands her about himself and his pirate pals. So not too long after that, she has to scheme her way out of the ensuing dire circumstances. She's aided by abandoned-island-chum Ben Gunn (Joshua James), who crawls out of the mud as if he's Edgar on the heath in King Lear.

What also sticks prominently in the mind about this Treasure Island is Clachan's eye-popping grey set in combination with Bruno Poet's lighting and Dan Jones's music and sound. Surrounding the huge space are tall, curved columns that conjure a ship's ribs. At times, the ribs lean down, becoming trees threatening the interlopers who are keen on unearthing the treasure that the map for which they've repeatedly wrangled promises is there.

Before Jim finally gets home to his grandma (Gillian Hanna), he's weathered storms, explosions and other trials, all of them thrillingly created by the designers. They're intended to jolt the spectators in -- or, more like, out of -- their seats. Those intentions are fulfilled with surpassing satisfaction.

There's no telling what Stevenson would have thought about his "story for boys," being told this way, but he doubtless would acknowledged how much fun it is in the Lavery-Findlay Jim-as-girl re-telling.

****

Amelia Bullmore's Di and Viv and Rose, at the Vaudeville, sneaks up on you. For a good stretch of the first act in which Di (Tamzin Outhwaite), Viv (Samantha Spiro) and Rose (Jenna Russell) meet at university and decide to live together, it looks as if we're watching an out-of-place sitcom.

The three highly individualized women don't necessarily get along, but to a large extent that's from whence the humor springs. Di, a lesbian, platonically likes Rose, who's promiscuous but lovable. The serious-minded Viv gets along with Di but finds Rose annoying and not just for her sleep-around tendencies. Rose loves everything and everybody.

As Bullmore writes the early scenes, which take place on Paul Wills's idea of a shared student flat, the laughs emanate from the clashes as much as from anything else. Patrons are excused for thinking they've seen these carryings-on in a Friends episode.

Then (spoiler alert!), the plot thickens. A rape occurs, and the three-way friendship is tested. Though recovery seems assured, the women's reactions to the severe event cast longer shadows that are initially apparent.

Bullmore follows BFFs Di, Viv and Rose from 1983 to 2010, although all three don't make it that far. The two who do have their own problems. Before finishing. she gets around to birth out of wedlock, cancer and alcoholism. These are not your everyday sitcom concerns.

What friendship really consists of is the subject matter here. Bullmore's implied thesis is that true friendships are not all sweetness and light. Like marriage, friendships often (usually?) require hard work. She illustrates this most persuasively in a sequence where Di and Viv, after not having been in touch for several years, meet and hash out their resentments. It's the play's toughest, weightiest exchange, and it's mighty effective.

As directed with unflinching directness by Anna Mackmin, Outhwaite, Spiro and Russell liberally scatter equal amounts light and dark. With Scarlett Mackmin choreographing them, they reach their most delightful high point when letting loose in a schoolgirl display of air-guitar dancing. That no-holds-barred ebullience stands for what the entire play has to offer.