Writers and Directors: Iseult Golden and David Horan
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
In the years since the introduction of the National Curriculum teaching has become less focused on imparting knowledge and inspiring learning, and instead is entirely about boundaries. Balancing the complex relationships with parents, social workers and others is now just as important as engaging with pupils which means the arrival of Iseult Gordon and David Horan’s 2017 play Class to the Bush Theatre is a timely examination of a system where everyone knows their rights but not their responsibilities.
Estranged parents Brian and Donna Costello have an after-school meeting with their son’s teacher Ray McCafferty to discuss his progress. When they discover Jayden’s literacy scores are below average, cooperation soon turns to conflict as the Costello’s relationship problems take the discussion in an unexpected direction revealing McCafferty’s own complicated position within the school.
Gordon and Horan’s play weaves together two interlinked narratives; first McCafferty’s interview with Brian and Donna, and secondly an after-school homework club a few weeks later for Jayden and fellow pupil Kaylie in which the actors play parents and children with a swift alteration of posture and physicality. As directors, Gordon and Horan create rapid transitions between these scenarios contained within Maree Kearns standard but realistically detailed classroom set – although the chalk and blackboard arrangement is a tad unlikely in these days of interactive whiteboards and flat-screen projection.
Class has some useful points to make and the idea of a child’s progress in the context of their parent’s relationship breakdown is a thought-provoking one, as is the question of who is really best placed to act in the best interests of the child. But Class never quite decides what it wants to say, padding-out its 95-minute run time with circular discussions and marital arguments that are never ultimately resolved. Gordon and Horan’s key message is obscured while the tension between parent and teacher only seems to really get going in the latter section of the play.
More successful is the ambiguous nature of Will O’Connell’s Ray McCafferty, a teacher who is keen to tackle Jayden’s difficulties and initially suggests a care for his pupils’ welfare and development. But as the story unfolds you see something more complex in O’Connell’s performance as the writers’ hint repeatedly that McCafferty has overstepped the mark with another family and, in a tense confrontation with Brian later in the play, even uses the child as a battleground to preserve his own position. Is McCafferty a good man in a broken system or far more manipulative, a question that a tighter reworking of Class could explore in more detail.
Stephen Jones is a full of rage as Brian who from the start barely contains his fury at the declining state of his marriage, creating an underlying tension from the start. Neither Brian or Donna are particularly fleshed-out or given room to develop across the show, but Jones suggests the frustrations of enforced absence from his family which the situation at school exacerbates, while drawing-out the double-meaning in the play’s title during some class-based clashes with McCafferty.
Donna is least well served by the script meaning Sarah Morris has little to do but be a conciliatory female presence while being made to feel unequal to the intelligence of the men around her. Similarly, the role of Kaylie feels over-played – as it does with Jones’ Jayden – the childlike mannerisms too exaggerated so that they both seem younger than nine and it’s unclear what these sections add to the overall story.
Despite running without an interval, Class is still longer than it needs to be and becomes distracted by a subsidiary narrative that contributes relatively little to the drama. Where Golden and Horan are on stronger ground is in trying to determine the boundary between parent and teacher, a discussion that leaves the audience with more questions than it answers.
Runs until: 1 June 2019 | Image: Helen Murray