In their seventh collaboration, Iseult Golden and David Horan bring a fascinating piece of new writing to this year’s festival at #TravFest18. Confined to the space of a primary school classroom, CLASS charts how friction between two separated parents and one teacher leads to an extraordinary set of events, unravelling a stellar exploration of the education system, social class and raising kids while in a broken home.
CLASS starts off playful as Brian (Stephen Jones) and Donna (Sarah Morris) try to get past the awkwardness of parent-teacher meetings. There is the uncertainty around how to refer to their son’s teacher (by his first name? Surname? Sir?), and the occasional hand raised when wanting to ask a question. However, tension soon surfaces as they begin to suspect that their intelligence is being questioned, or that they are being blamed for their son, Jayden’s “learning difference”. Jones is convincing in his portrayal of an insecure father who is constantly on the defence. He is trying his best to change for the better – working two jobs, going to therapy – in the hope that he can reunite with his family. Unfortunately, his hot-headed nature gets the better of him as he and Mr. McCafferty clash, with Jayden’s teacher representing everything he believes is wrong with the education system.
Golden and Horan have created a multifaceted character in Mr. McCafferty (played here by Will O’Connell). In his scenes with Jayden and Kaylie, it’s evident that he wants the best for his students and will go to great lengths to achieve this. However, when he doesn’t always go about it the right way, his actions raise questions about the ethics and responsibilities that come with being a teacher. Moreover, with Brian and Donna we begin to see a less encouraging side of O’Connell’s character: a sense of superiority that comes with his occasional Freudian slips and condescending behaviour.
A welcome surprise comes in the form of flash-forwards where we meet Jayden and his friend, Kaylie – played also by Jones and Morris – in an afterschool club run by Mr. McCafferty. The scenes smartly break up the action and reveal the repercussions of the tense parent-teacher encounter from all perspectives. The afterschool scenes expose the harsh reality Jayden and other children find themselves in; unable to control their home situations, they act out and find their education paying the price. Many of CLASS’s memorable moments come from Jayden and Kaylie’s interactions with Mr. McCafferty. At first, there doesn’t feel like much distinction between Morris’ characters at first – their mannerisms almost identical – yet Morris eventually comes into her own and ends up monopolising our attention. Kaylie’s exuberance means that Jayden often falls into the background, forgotten in the same way the meeting becomes less about his education and more about his parent’s turbulent relationship.
There are moments when the bickering between Brian and Donna feels tedious, stuck on the same note as Brian begs Donna to give their marriage another chance. Yet, all of this eventually leads to a shocking revelation that makes us see everything we have just witnessed in a whole new light. The unexpected curveball is a devastating blow, leaving us bereft – most of all for the children, who are the true victims of the play.
While it may not sound like it, CLASS is an intensely funny piece of theatre that has a lot of heart. The witty writing, sophisticated character development and profound study of family and education, are all what make CLASS an exceptional piece of theatre.