Review: The Cane, Royal Court

Powerfully acted by Nicola Walker, Alun Armstrong anf Maggie Steed, Mark Ravenhill’s cleverly written The Cane is bracing stuff at the Royal Court

“These children now can hunt out anybody’s grievance and claim it as their own…they want to be offended”

Inspired by Mark Ravenhill’s realisation that some teachers retiring now would have been active when corporal punishment was outlawed in 1986, The Cane is his first new play for a goodly while. And directed by Vicky Featherstone, it is a strikingly intriguing piece of drama which has as much to say about contemporary outrage culture as it does the abuses of the past.

Edward is marking 45 years as a teacher and preparations for his retirement do are in full swing. A mob has trapped him and his wife Maureen in their own home though, inflamed by his past use of the cane, and the arrival of their daughter Anna is little comfort as she is long-estranged. And as it turns out she has both a personal and professional interest here, the atmosphere within proves no less febrile than without.

Blessed with a superlative cast, The Cane does a great job of really making you think. Alun Armstrong’s Edward seems mild-mannered enough, Maggie Steed’s Maureen is only just a little tightly-wound and Nicola Walker’s Anna is righteously indignant. And almost straightaway, we come to realise there’s so much more bubbling away under the surface or hidden in the attic.

Should historical crimes be judged by modern standards? How long does culpability last, particularly when the world has changed so much? Is sorry ever just enough? Questions like these and many more beside rattle around the Royal Court as revenge and recrimination lie thick in the air, the intersecting histories of these three characters brought into stark relief. 

Chloe Lamford’s set design suggests a house rather than a home, rotting very slowly from within and bearing all its ancient scars. And as their very world shrinks, the stakes are raised unbearably high as past histories of violence flare up once again. The tension between all three is brilliantly played, the subtleties of Walker’s shift in demeanour, Armstrong’s slow reveal of his layers, this bracing stuff.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
The Cane is booking at the Royal Court until 26th January

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