Schools are very evocative places. Walking into a classroom, smelling the chalk dust and PVC glue, seeing the brightly coloured poster paint artworks, hearing the scrape of a small chair being pulled out from under a small desk, most of us would be hit by a powerful wave of memories; some good, some bad.
For Brian and Donna, summoned to meet their son’s teacher, Mr McCafferty, the memories are mostly bad. Back in those hallowed, hated halls, their confidence seeps away and they are apprehensive children once again; Donna, pathetically eager to please, shooting her hand up whenever she wants to ask a question and Brian surly, defensive and wrong-footed.
When Mr McCafferty informs them that their son, Jayden, has learning difficulties – sorry, differences, the news doesn’t go down quite as well as he might have hoped.
Class is essentially a play about the elusive nature of power; who has it, how they demonstrate it, and how the balance can shift in the blink of an eye. At the beginning of the play McCafferty appears to have it all, a fact that he stresses, maybe unconsciously, through his use of words which the parents are unlikely to understand, such as “disparity” and “percentile”. At other times Donna wields her power over Brian; he wants them to get back together, she does not. Brian himself attempts to seize power using mockery, insults and physical dominance. Essentially, the three adults are engaged in a dance, each taking it in turn to lead. Elegant writing and directing by Iseult Golden and David Horan, using language, rhetoric and physicality to portray the various levels of control, make the handover points clear without ever feeling laboured.
Stephen Jones is a convincingly belligerent Brian, leaving the question as to whether his bluster would ever spill over into actual violence unsettlingly ambiguous. Sarah Morris’ Donna is still, essentially, a little girl, but one who is struggling very hard to be practical and grown-up and to do the right thing for her own children. Will O’Connell’s well-meaning teacher is a masterclass in understated characterisation; he has more layers than an onion, and each of them equally believable. All three have a keen sense of both comedy and drama, and can slip from one to the next at the drop of a hat.
The sad truth is that, whoever has the power, it is usually the children who suffer. Using clever freeze frames and split-second changes of posture and tone, Brian and Donna suddenly become Jayden and his friend Kaylie, stuck in “homework class” and intent on badgering long-suffering Mr McCafferty, who seems much more at ease with the children than he does with their adult counterparts. Jones and Morris really come into their own here, with impressively child-like physicality and delivery and a keen sense of the innately comic pathos of small people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are by far the most moving scenes, with an emotional depth and understanding that is rather lacking elsewhere in the play.
It is maybe for this reason that the writers decided to tack on the out-of-the-blue shock ending. The great thing about Class is that it is about real people, behaving in a real way, and such an obvious attempt to manipulate audience emotion is at odds with the authenticity of the rest of the play, meaning that it sits uncomfortably.
Nevertheless, this is an excellent production of an engrossing story, with some truly superb performances. Original, insightful and memorable.
Review by Genni Trickett
CLASS is the story of a parent-teacher meeting that flies off the rails. This award-winning show looks at the plight of teachers on the frontline and the pressures of modern masculinity. Funny and beautifully observed, the play had a sold-out run at the Abbey Theatre and won a Fringe First Award at Edinburgh. CLASS is new Irish writing at its finest.
‘God. I hate classrooms. Give me the heebie-jeebies. Even still’
Brian and Donna’s son, Jayden, is nine years old and he’s struggling. That’s what his teacher says. Mr McCafferty thinks Jayden should see a psychologist. But Brian and Donna never liked school, never liked teachers.
So, are they going to trust this one?
And should they?
Written and directed by Iseult Golden and David Horan
Set and Costume Design by Maree Kearns
Lighting Design by Kevin Smith
Sound Design by Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty
Cast – Stephen Jones, Sarah Morris and Will O’Connell
7 May – 1 June 2019
Bush Theatre, 7 Uxbridge Road, London, W12 8LJ