You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: ‘The Cane’

The tense, timely new play by Mark Ravenhill raises incisive questions about injustice and reparation.

Alun Armstrong, Maggie Steed, Nicola Walker.

1 hour 45 minutes

The Cane” lands with a thwack — a timely intervention in a topical debate. By dredging up the specter of corporal punishment in British schools, Mark Ravenhill’s terse allegorical drama asks how we handle historic injustices. Can old complaints be forgot? Or should we seek redress, judging the past by present-day standards? The question’s incisive; answers are elusive.

A student mob has laid siege to a retiring teacher’s home. As deputy head, Edward (Alun Armstrong) doled out canings to disobedient pupils until the practice was banned in 1986. Now his current crop, dismissed as “snowflakes” by his haughty wife Maureen (Maggie Steed), is demanding accountability. Their daughter Anna (Nicola Walker), a teacher herself, has more sympathy with the students’ cause.

She may have other motives, given a long rift with her father. It’s been years since they exchanged birthday cards — a neat nod to the way we let the years slide by. Has Anna come to help and heal, or to revel in the downfall of her disciplinarian dad? Their educational philosophies clash: Edward saw his daughter’s advocacy of the new academy system — which swept away schools like his own with efficiency savings and red tape — as an irredeemable betrayal. But the rancor between them reaches into their own family history: the scar tissue between a stern father and an unruly child. The beige front room bristles with hostility, recriminations ricocheting off the walls.

Director Vicky Featherstone’s staging sometimes lets that tension slip — the students outside sound too canned to muster genuine threat — but it picks at the welts raised with unflinching articulacy. An unsettling, off-kilter atmosphere edges the action into allegory, and Edward’s canings quickly come to stand for all sorts of age-old crimes. At times, he resembles a Nazi sympathizer with secrets in his attic; at others, just your common domestic patriarch facing a revolution at home. Steed’s Maureen slides from imperious loyalty to quivering resentment as, encouraged by Anna, the prospect of revenge rears its head.

Yet Ravenhill treads a fine tightrope, careful to cultivate a queasy moral ambivalence. “The Cane” is quick to condemn historic crimes, but equally wary of violent redress. Armstrong’s curt and unrepentant Edward can cut a meek, sympathetic figure, complicit in institutional violence, but not solely culpable. Walker lets a sadistic streak shine through Anna’s stern exterior, hardly a flicker of feeling for her father’s fate. She’s rightly indignant about the wrongs of corporal punishment, but Ravenhill stresses the cruelty of Anna’s own approach to education. Its staff cuts and results culture seem no less inhumane, as students sit, eyes front, in eerie silence. Today’s standards may, in time, seem equally unenlightened.

Chloe Lamford’s domestic design picks up that thread: a dour, distressed living room looms upwards, out of proportion and out of time. Chintzy wallpaper peels off damp walls. The stairs are rotten with decay. Yet elegant vintage furniture suggests that some fashions survive or simply roll around. A quaint, old-fashioned painting of elephants – either a grazing herd or a charging mob – stirs other ideas into the mix: endangered species, accepted cruelties, colonial history.

Cleverly, Ravenhill’s writing is characterized by the cane itself: strict, stern, even punishing at times. His dialogue is short and sharp; every other line leaves a sting. It feels too harsh to be fully human, too severe for a real family reunion. His drama is disciplinarian too, as if the writer has limited himself to the bare minimum — three people, an empty room and a few crucial props. “The Cane” has an air of resolute austerity: Ravenhill must make the most of what little he’s got.

Mostly he does, largely by loading — perhaps overloading – “The Cane” with potential threats: ladders that wobble, axes stored under staircases and, of course, the cane itself, swaddled in a blanket in the attic upstairs. Forget Chekhov’s gun. This is Ravenhill’s arsenal and he knows how to use it. His point is that any object of violence will eventually — inevitably — be put to use, but his play is spoilt for choice. It lingers, torturously, over its dramatic possibilities, toying with its audience until its menace becomes meandering, only to make its mark again at the last as “The Cane” finally lands its blows.

Popular on Variety

London Theater Review: 'The Cane'

Royal Court Theatre, London; 450 seats; £49 ($61) top. Opened Dec. 12, 2018; reviewed Dec 13. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Production: A Royal Court production of a play in one act by Mark Ravenhill.

Creative: Directed by Vicky Featherstone; Design, Chloe Lamford; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound, David McSeveney; fight direction, Bret Yount.

Cast: Alun Armstrong, Maggie Steed, Nicola Walker.

More Legit

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

  • A Very Expensive Poison review

    London Theater Review: 'A Very Expensive Poison'

    Vladimir Putin owes his power to the stage. The president’s closest advisor trained as a theatre director before applying his art to politics, and ran Russia like a staged reality, spinning so many fictions that truth itself began to blur. By scrambling the story and sowing confusion, Putin could exert absolute control. The long-awaited latest [...]

  • Betrayal review Tom Hiddleston

    Broadway Review: 'Betrayal' With Tom Hiddleston

    and Zawe Ashton as a long-married couple and Charlie Cox as the secret lover. Director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable direction — now on Broadway, after a hot-ticket London run — strips Pinter’s 1978 play to its bare bones: the excruciating examination of the slow death of a marriage.  It’s a daring approach, leaving the characters nowhere [...]

  • Jayne Houdyshell arrives at the 71st

    'The Music Man' Revival Adds Four Tony Winners to Broadway Cast

    Tony Award-winners Jayne Houdyshell, Jefferson Mays, Marie Mullen and Shuler Hensley will join stars Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in the upcoming Broadway revival of “The Music Man.” In “The Music Man,” Jackman will play con-man Harold Hill, who arrives in a small, fictional Iowa town called River City and urges the townsfolk to start [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content