James McAvoy  Photo copyright Suzanne Philips/CFM

James McAvoy Photo copyright Suzanne Philips/CFM


Actor leads talented cast in director Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Peter Barnes’ 1968 play.

Article by Suzanne Philips/CFM


Scottish actor James McAvoy plays Jack, a paranoid schizophrenic who becomes the 14th Earl of Gurney after the accidental death of his father.  Jack believes that he is God incarnate and spends much of the play with “God is Love” written in marker across his chest and asking that people call him “JC”.  Jack’s behavior is decidedly over the top, with him preaching love and resting in a Christ-like pose on a huge crucifix.  His money-grubbing family comes up with a scheme to get Jack married and produce an heir.  At that time they can have him declared insane and committed, leaving them in control of the family fortune and title. With the help of his psychiatrist, Jack learns that goodness is mistaken for madness in British society and embraces his inner cruelty – modeling himself on his namesake Jack the Ripper.  Jack takes his rightful place as heir and in the House of Lords, thwarting his relatives in the process.


James McAvoy and Kathryn Drysdale in "The Ruling Class". Photo copyright Trafalgar Studios

James McAvoy and Kathryn Drysdale in “The Ruling Class”. Photo copyright Trafalgar Studios


McAvoy’s performance is entertaining and engaging.  When we first see Jack, in his “JC” persona, he is bright-eyed and quick-witted.  His comedic timing is spot on and the singing and dancing in the show is very reminiscent of a British Panto.

At one point, McAvoy rides around the stage in his underwear on a unicycle – that’s talent right there.  When Jack’s therapist decides to try to “cure” Jack by exposing him to another patient that also believes he is God, Jack’s whole persona begins to change.

McAvoy’s transformation from the loving “JC” into the decidedly cruel “Jack the Ripper” is an amazing thing to watch.  The transformation is very jarring for the audience who has come to enjoy “JC”‘s message of love.  Watching McAvoy’s portrayal of someone suffering with schizophrenia is both transfixing and disturbing.  The struggle to get a handle on the speech problems that come with his “cure” and figuring out how to fit into polite society is heartbreaking.  McAvoy handles both extremes of this character with ease.  The physicality that is asked of him during the show, from being thrown around the stage to climbing up and down off a huge crucifix onstage, quite simply must be exhausting.


James McAvoy as Jack in "The Ruling Class". Photo copyright Trafalgar Studios.

James McAvoy as Jack in “The Ruling Class”. Photo copyright Trafalgar Studios.


Peter Barnes’ script is a scathing critique on the British class system.  While the characters are definitely over the top caricatures, the witty dialogue makes them ultimately likeable.  The commentary on how people with mental illness are treated, both in the 1960’s and even today, is particularly poignant.

The entire cast is excellent and Joshua McGuire as Jack’s cousin Dinsdale Gurney and Anthony O’Donnell as the Gurney’s butler Tucker are both standouts.

The Ruling Class runs at the Trafalgar Studios London until mid-April.  For ticket information visit http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-ruling-class.