Class of ’76 is a gentle reflective piece that manages to avoid nostalgia whilst still invoking memories of schooldays. Those of us whose recollections of that time are largely overshadowed by feelings of horror, guilt and shame may, however, struggle to relate to the show.
But then author, co-director and performer Alexander Kelly seems to have some difficulty focussing on a central theme. The show is a revised third version, which gives one the impression of it being a permanent work in progress - or perhaps evolution would be a better word.
The show originated in 1999 when Kelly used a photograph of the children in his class at infant school as the basis for a short sketch in which he made up, for comic effect, the names and destinies of the pupils. For reasons that he still finds hard to articulate Kelly decided to do the show for real and find out what happened to his classmates.
This version of the show was later revised to give details of how it came to be developed as a play. This is interesting for theatregoers in making clear just how projects evolve and the role of a co-director – in this case Rachael Walton- in providing neutral input that shapes the finished product.
It is an imaginatively staged production. A minimum of props, including sticky sweets handed out upon entrance, is used effectively to re-create the atmosphere of the playground. The children in the photograph that prompted the idea are displayed via a projection onto head-sized card that Kelly holds up to display each face when he outlines what became of them.
Perhaps because it is based on a true story the play lacks a degree of drama and focus. Although the Internet is not available when Kelly undertakes his research everything goes smoothly and his former classmates all cooperate. There are no horror stories of bullying or abuse at the school so there is no sense of catharsis from righting past wrongs.
Apart from one pupil who overcomes a horrendous illness none of the pupils has encountered any real difficulties and everyone seems to have turned out okay, which is nice but a bit dull – just like life sometimes.
Class of '76 has charm and is evocative of a period when children could be amused by playing marbles - the arcane rules of which are used to great comic effect. It does, however, demonstrate that real life, whilst useful as the basis for drama, sometimes needs a bit of exaggeration to be really interesting .