The Cane review: Tale of school beatings has a nightmarish concentration

The Cane review: Tale of school beatings has a nightmarish concentration

A new play by Mark Ravenhill, once the enfant terrible of British theatre, has become a rarity. Here he turns his probing gaze on ideas of blame, violence and the abuse of power.

Alun Armstrong’s Edward is a teacher retiring after forty-five years of service. But his plans for an upbeat exit are derailed when current students learn that he used to dish out corporal punishment. As his wife Maureen (Maggie Steed) fretfully observes the protests rumbling outside their home, their estranged daughter Anna arrives to resume old hostilities.

The cane’s use in state schools was banned in 1986, meaning most folk under forty won’t have encountered it. Yet countless older people have memories of floggings, and plenty of those who administered them are still alive. Ravenhill wonders if there might be a moment of #MeToo reckoning for them — and if there’s a risk of trial by the mob, in which justice and vengeance get confused.

Though the play has a tantalisingly hallucinatory air, the symbolism is sometimes laboured — whether it’s the ‘very small’ dimensions of Edward’s cane, the anxiety about students rummaging in his junk-filled loft, or the loft descending as if the weight of the past is crushing him. But Ravenhill is careful not to make his sympathies clear. For instance, Anna can be interpreted as the voice of progress, yet has dark reasons for wanting to humiliate her father, and her own educational views are hardly enlightened.

Vicky Featherstone’s production has a nightmarish concentration. Armstrong delivers a fine study of a man who’s both a bully and an example of repression’s tragic consequences, and Nicola Walker serves up Anna’s agenda with cold, perfectly controlled menace.

Until January 26