“A THRILLING ALLEGORICAL MICROCOSM”
A vulnerable demographic, an accepted culture of violence, an angry mob, a spokesperson, a new school that seeks to tear down what went before; Mark Ravenhill’s new play The Cane is a perfectly arranged and oh so natural analogy. For what exactly, I’ll spare the spoilers (although this tale could be moulded to more than one zeitgeist).
At face value it’s the story of a teacher – just retired – who has a skeleton in his attic, namely an old cane with which he used to beat schoolboys until the practice became illegal. Days before his retirement party, a baying mob of current and former students protest outside his house. When his estranged daughter rocks up, it’s not clear whether she’s here to help or hinder. Occasionally a moment jars: a detail seems overly significant, the crowd outside exaggerated. But with the dawning realisation of what this play is saying beneath the surface, of the allegorical microcosm at play, a thrilling clarity emerges. It echoes another piece of new writing on the same stage earlier this year, Dennis Kelly‘s Girls and Boys, which snaps together in the last couple of minutes, leaving ideas like grenades in its wake.
Alun Armstrong and Nicola Walker put in strong turns as former teacher Edward and daughter Anna, but Maggie Steed as wife and mother Maureen is the standout. She’s flippant and biting one moment, a pitiable wreck the next, and she pulls off both with an idiosyncratic humour that captivates.
Chloe Lamford‘s set is a desolate and frayed drawing room. Every now and then it hiccups another deeply satisfying metaphor; an impossibly long and wobbly ladder leads to the attic; the wall bears the marks of a long-ago axe attack. Edward doesn’t even notice the gashes in the wall anymore; he’s become so used to it. What horrors have we become used to?
Ravenhill has built what is at once an engaging naturalistic story and a fitting metaphor. Packing humour, insight and timeliness into a lean script, it’s a real achievement.
Reviewed by Laura Foulger