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A CurtainUp London Review
The Cane

"Why would they attack the most popular teacher in the school?"
— Anna
cane
Alun Armstrong as Edward
(Photo: Johan Persson)
Mark Ravenhill hit the world of playwriting more than two decades ago with his seminal play Shopping and Fucking. Now he returns to the Royal Court with a new play called The Cane about a school teacher who is retiring after 45 years in the same school. Edward (Alun Armstrong) may be looking forward to his retirement party and presentation at school but his house in under siege and has been for the last six days. Pupils from the school have gathered outside shouting abuse and harassing anyone coming to the door.

Edward and his wife Maureen (Maggie Steed) have a visit from their daughter Anna (Nicola Walker) a successful teacher at a local academy, a previously failing school taken into a scheme of direct funding from central government and set all kinds of targets and special measures to turn around the pupils into ones who can succeed. Anna has fallen out with her father because she works for what her mother terms "the opposition". Edward's school is failing Ofsted, Educational Standards, inspections.

But first Anna wants to know why the window has been broken and her questions to and answers by her mother are the playwright's clever and involving way of bringing us up to speed on the history of the family dynamic and the noise of the crowd in the street outside. It feels like Anna is interrogating her mother as this intelligent woman presses for the answers. The two women clearly do not like each other. The scars of Anna's childhood are still visible on the wall when she threw an axe at her father; the wall paper has never been replaced.

The reason for the protest is in the title of the play. Many years ago before caning was made illegal in state schools, as Deputy Headmaster, Edward was responsible for administering the cane to boys who had misbehaved. The cane is a thin, flexible stick with a curved handle, in this case, used to hit the hand, often six times. Maureen maintains that Edward is not a violent man but a kind one. She tells how Edward's father had belted him and how Edward waited for Anna's anger to subside to then talk to her calmly. This illustrates how within living memory corporal punishment with the family has become unacceptable.

What is happening in The Cane is that the past is coming back to bite the respected and loved teacher. His past actions are being judged by today's standards and by the "Snowflake" generation. Anna, his daughter speaks the language of educational bureaucracy and offers to write the apology for her father that is likely to appease the school governors. So Ravenhill is asking the question whether we should allow years of dedicated teaching to be swept away by the blame resulting from a teacher obeying the orders of his headmaster.

I can see the skill of Mark Ravenhill building layers of right and wrong. We see Edward, angry and bullying towards his wife unlike the man she describes as kind and good. While we can see Anna's point of view, we are also irritated by her skill at the lip service, the sound bites paid to political correctness. Maureen gets little thanks for her defence of her husband as he cruelly uses her depression to explain why he had to conform as the only wage earner.

The casting is superb, the acting suspending all disbelief; even now I am only thinking about the characters as real people, not the actors playing them under Vicky Featherstone's skilled direction. Chloe Lamford's set has a ladder going up into the attic which stores the little black book and another item but the cantilevered stairs up to the first floor are cut off with fraying brown carpet. David McSeveney's sound design ensures we never forget the crowd increasing outside with the explosive missiles shattering the windows.

My strong feeling about the success of The Cane is in its contribution to the debate about re-assessing valuable historic contributions by today's moral standards, whether it be Gauguin marrying very young girls or the racism in Shakespeare's Othello and Merchant. Mark Ravenhill's play should pick up some Best New Play nominations as well as acting awards for all three of the stellar cast.





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PRODUCTION NOTES
The Cane
Written by Mark Ravenhill
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Starring: Alun Armstrong, Maggie Steed, Nicola Walker
Design: Chloe Lamford
Sound Design: David McSeveney
Lighting Design: Natasha Chivers
Fight Director: Bret Yount
Running time: One hour 45 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 26th January 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 13th December 2018 performance at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS (Tube: Sloane Square)
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