Class. A hierarchal social structure wherein groups are divided and categorized based on economic status. Alternatively, it can mean something that possesses style, sophistication, elegance, and panache. “Class” written and directed by Iseult Golden and David Horan, offers the best of both worlds, and so much more. Making its debut on the Peacock Stage at the Abbey Theatre, having first been performed in the Civic Theatre, Tallaght as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival 2017, “Class” is a heartbreakingly beautiful production that explores class, education, and their impact on children, in a tale of three walking wounds trying hard to find healing.
As any parent will tell you, being called to school to talk to a teacher about your child can trigger a welter of memories, thoughts, and emotions. The colourful classroom, the sight of the alphabet written on the wall, chalk words written on the blackboard, and piles of copybooks and miniature chairs, it can trigger something almost primal. In the case of Brian, it does just that, evoking an overwhelming sense of unease as he and his estranged wife, his childhood sweetheart Donna, meet with primary school teacher, Mr. McCafferty, to talk about the troubles their nine-year-old son Jayden is having at school.
Inside the classroom, Brian meets an overwhelming sense of failure. Failure as a student, a mechanic, as a father and a husband, despite all his best efforts. More baggage than he can possibly fit into his small, smelly flat, or his round the clock taxi. Probably even more than his self-help group can help him manage. But Brian wants Donna back, wants them to be a family again. Even if Donna’s not sure she even wants him back. For Donna is intent on building a new life for herself and their two young boys. Mr. McCafferty, the favorite teacher of nine-year-old Jayden, wants them both to help him help Jayden with his recently diagnosed learning difficulty. Or should that be learning difference? Either way, it still means you’re seen as stupid as Donna knows only too well. McCafferty might be a good, caring teacher trapped behind all the procedural restrictions and educational double speak, someone a little more creative than his conservative tank top might suggest, but he’s still sitting smugly in judgment as far as Brian's concerned, whether he knows it or not. As their meeting progresses, unspoken prejudices rise to the surface from both sides and the best of intentions might well lead to the worse possible hell. Always in the name of the children, of course. And always it’s the children, like struggling Jayden or the irrepressible Kaylie, who suffer the most.
Told through a Pulp Fiction styled series of non-linear, interlocking scenes, “Class” manages to exquisitely balance its broader issues with the lived, emotional, everyday experiences of its characters. It’s to Golden and Horan’s immense credit that the apparent directness and simplicity of “Class’s” dialogue and action belies endless hidden depths and interwoven complexities layered underneath. Children playing at being adults who are responsible for the care of young children, the stress of trying to take care of oneself whilst trying to do what’s best for those around you, the clash of family and the education system when it comes to who’s responsible for the education of a child, the battle between middle class snobbery and the inverted snobbery of the working class; the list goes on. Yet its issues are almost always secondary to the people they affect.
Throughout, the threads linking the children these characters once were to the children they still are, and to their own children, are beautifully conveyed. Flawed, each trying to do their best in their own way, “Class” perfectly sustains the tension between characters, like a series of wonderfully executed chords, note perfect and flawlessly transitioned. For the most part. A curious curve ball tossed in near the end in the form of an unexpected twist that seems intent on deliberately cranking up the emotional kick, feels a little like a cheat, or an unnecessary short cut. The one instant where the people onstage become secondary to the message “Class” wants to send. All of which only serves to highlight just how exquisitely crafted “Class” really is in every other respect.
If its characters display an abundance of baggage, its cast display an even greater abundance of talent. Will O’Connell as the well meaning, idealistic, and conflicted Mr. McCafferty is outstanding in what is “Class’s” least developed character. Part charm, part temper, all heart, Stephen Jones’s troubled Brian is brilliantly conveyed, with Jones turning in yet another memorable performance. As does Sarah Morris as Donna. Looking like a reject from the Pink Ladies in her shiny pink, bowling jacket and black leggings, Morris is jaw droppingly brilliant, delivering one of the best performances you’re likely to see for some time. Yet both Jones and Morris confirm why you should never work with children, with Jones’s troubled Jayden, and Morris’s hyper energized Kaylie, upstaging everyone, stealing the show, and your heart, at every turn. All of which is sublimely directed by Golden and Horan, with Maree Kearns set design and costumes, and Kevin Smiths lighting design, capturing both what is immediately visible to the eye whilst suggesting the hidden subtexts buried beneath.
If theatre is serious play, the same holds true for “Class.” It might have you laughing hard at times, but “Class” also holds up a mirror and asks ‘if this is what nurture looks like isn’t it time we take a long hard look at ourselves, and at how we raise and educate our children?’ A class act, “Class” is a seriously good play that plays with some serious themes in a seriously playful manner. With its three terrific performances, two exceptional writers and directors, and one extraordinarily brilliant script, there can be zero complaints. It may only be January, but already it looks like “Class” might well be one of this year's outstanding productions. For “Class” lives up its name. Heartfelt, irresistible, thought provoking theatre, “Class” delivers all the feels.
“Class” by Iseult Golden and David Horan, runs at The Peacock Stage of the Abbey Theatre until February 3rd
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre.