The Cane: A Bleak Reminder Of The Past At Royal Court Theatre

The Cane, Royal Court Theatre ★★★★☆

Hari Mountford
By Hari Mountford Last edited 20 months ago

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The Cane: A Bleak Reminder Of The Past At Royal Court Theatre The Cane, Royal Court Theatre 4
Photo: Johan Persson

To say that the cast of Mark Ravenhill’s new drama The Cane is strong is an understatement of epic proportions. Alun Armstrong (who plays retiring deputy headteacher Edward), Maggie Steed (Maureen, his admiring and increasingly ballsy wife) and Nicola Walker (Anna, their daughter) keep the Royal Court Theatre audience completely transfixed for a full 1hr 45.

These three people, however, make up anything but a happy family. As it comes to light that Edward and his wife have been under siege in their house for six days due to rioting teenagers outside, their estranged daughter Anna, who has dropped in uncharacteristically, begins to suspect something is not quite right. These violent teens are actually Edward’s students, who, rather than organising a sending off party for the teacher who’s been at the school over 40 years, are attacking him. And all because of the cane.

The play is a stark reminder of the former normalisation of physical abuse in schools: responsibility, guilt, and blame in these past cases of enforced institutionalised violence are brought to the fore, causing us to question whether we should judge yesterday’s actions on today’s laws and values. Edward’s controlling, patriarchal and outdated mentality contrasts with his daughter Anna’s, who, as a teacher as well, champions the ‘pupil voice’, and the move to Academies, further dividing the two characters. At the start, we feel slightly sorry for the disregarded daughter but as the play progresses, her devious, ulterior motives become evident.

The tumbledown house that the drama unfolds in reveals a lot about this feuding family, with the axe marks on the wall and the boarded-up window in the living room hinting at the long-lasting legacy of the past.  With no interval, the play, which all takes place in the one room, does feel slightly claustrophobic. The three characters go round in circles and seemingly talk about the same thing — the cane — for the duration of the drama. As such, there are no big events, no scene changes, and no climax. This does, however, prove an effective technique to build tension, the audience feeling increasingly trapped with the family, desperate for a resolution. Perhaps more impressive than the story is the acting itself – each part is played exquisitely, and the three actors are faultless. The Cane is a thought-provoking exploration into the past – and a gentle nudge to think about the future.

The Cane, Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, SW1W 8AS. Tickets from £14, until 26 January 2019.

Last Updated 07 January 2019