Theatre Review by Christopher Walker: Class at the Bush Theatre, W12

Some theatres are proud champions of new writing. The Bush Theatre is one of them.

They describe themselves as discovering “the best new writers from the widest range of backgrounds from our home in a distinctive corner of West London.”

Led now by Lynette Linton as artistic director, they look for new voices to tell contemporary stories.

Class is such a story. The gut-wrenching cry of the working class white male who feels alienated by the current orthodoxy.

What is sometimes referred to as a “gammon,” a white male red-faced with anger. It is an Irish play written by Iseult Golden and David Horan.

But do not fear, the central character’s woes are very recognisable by a London audience. It comes to the Bush having triumphed at the Fringe in Edinburgh. There are five characters, played excellently by three actors.

The “angry man” is Brian Costello, acted with extraordinary poise and subtlety by Stephen Jones.

Stephen Jones, Sarah Morris in Class. Pictures: Helen Murray

He is an experienced actor in Dublin, but this may well be his London debut. It was outstanding.

He perfectly captures the tortured angst of his character who feels imprisoned by a world of changed values and shifting sands.

The anger that wells up inside him (to the point of illness) seems perfectly genuine.

The play begins with Brian and his partner Donna (Sarah Morris) being called in to see their son’s teacher, Mr McCafferty (Will O’Connell).

In the politically correct language of our day, he clumsily tells them that their son Jayden has learning difficulties, eventually slipping up and calling him a delinquent.

This is all very amusing. But not for Brian who is getting angrier, and angrier. It emerges that Brian and Donna are separated. That Brian is working all hours as a cab driver to support the two households, and that he has some serious anger issues.

We then flip forward a week and see the couple’s son, Jayden, and a fellow “delinquent,” Kaylie, in Mr McCafferty’s after-school class for those with “special needs.”

In what was at first a difficult twist, these two children are also played by Sarah Morris and Stephen Jones.

But very quickly, their skilful, very physical acting, conveyed the two nine-year-olds well. They switched back and forth with ease, and captured the rawness of the children’s emotions perfectly.

It is clear from observing these two children that both their sets of parents have serious problems.

The writing is very strong, and soon confronts the audience with some awkward questions.

To what extent are these children’s problems hereditary? To what extent are Mr McCafferty’s attempts to help them, and others, mere virtue signalling?

A sense of superiority transferred into being a “do-gooder.” Is the overall dynamic here, really just a matter of “class?”

The classroom setting is perfectly captured by Maree Kearns’ design, with walls that are blackboards and chairs that are too small for adults.

There is also a lot here about the underlying failures of the educational system, and its attempts to “treat” people with “difficulties” or “needs”.

Is such a do-gooder approach faulted in its very premise? Don’t all of us have “special needs,” and who is to define “normal”?

Perhaps we should just treat everyone as an individual. In some ways, the two authors’ brilliant writing lead us to pretty bleak conclusions on all these points.

The audience is very much ‘in class’ itself. It really is quite an achievement to make us feel sympathy for all five characters, and to raise quite so many questions.

This is an emotionally charged piece that I would highly recommend.

Class is at Bush Theatre, 7 Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush, W12 8LJ.
For tickets, call 020 8743 5050.

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