The Cane  – Royal Court, London

Writer: Mark Ravenhill

Director:  Vicky Featherstone

Reviewer:  Richard Maguire

Some of us can clearly remember the cane, the form of corporal punishment so beloved in boys’ schools of the past. It was banned in 1986 in state schools but lingered on in private schools until the turn of the century. Nowadays the cane is a paradoxical symbol representing both ‘the good old days’ when the young respected their elders, and the cruel, draconian past. Both these views are explored in Mark Ravenhill’s Freudian drama of repressed desires and Oedipal conflicts.

Anna has returned home to see her estranged parents but she’s waving a white flag in the guise of a birthday card from her own children for their grandfather, though it’s obviously ‘family tradition’ that they don’t do birthday cards. Her father, Edward, is retiring from the comprehensive school where he has worked for 45 years. It should be a time of celebration, but outside the house, a mob is forming. Pupils have discovered that in the past it was his responsibility as deputy-head to cane the boys, a task that he doesn’t particularly regret.

And that’s not the end of Edward’s worries as his school has just failed the most recent Ofsted inspection and there are plans to turn it into an academy. Despite the protest outside, Edward is busy writing a report to change the Ofsted decision. Perhaps Anna, who works in the education business, can help him with the alienating jargon.

Running straight through for 105 minutes, The Cane is both a Gothic tale with something nasty in the attic, and an examination on how we deal with the crimes of the past. The cane becomes a potent symbol of other forms of ‘institutionalised violence’. Director Vicky Featherstone ensures that the acting is stylised rather than natural, increasing the sense of isolation especially in the early exchanges between Anna, an icy Nicola Walker, and her mother, who is dotty and paranoid in the hands of Maggie Steed. Alun Armstrong plays the father, a calm but menacing figure. Sometimes he speaks sense while at other times he is grossly short-sighted. He maintains a constant presence, like the pupils who have gathered outside his house.

All three are dwarfed by Chloe Lamford’s set, a room that extends to the very top of the stage, an attic door impossible to reach. But the set, like the script, has a few surprises, but perhaps not quite enough for its running time. The end – somewhat predictable- is a long time coming, but the cast ensure that the journey is always unsettling.

An attic also appears in the new play by Anthony Neilson, The Tell-Tale Heart, playing at The National. A case of Gothic doubling?  Both playwrights are seen as part of the in-yer-face theatre generation, and it’s heartening to see that they still have the power to shock, though not quite in the same way as Shopping and Fucking, Ravenhill’s first play for the Royal Court.  All we need is a new play by Simon Stephens for a real in-yer-face reunion.

Runs until 26 January 2019 | Image: Johann Persson

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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