Review: The Cane at the Royal Court Theatre has tension and dark humour, and is worth enduring

Every now and then I feel I am enduring a play rather than watching for pleasure. With the Royal Court’s world premiere of Mark Ravenhill’s The Cane, this feels to have been deliberately done.

The play takes place over one day as Anna (Nicola Walker) visits her parents as they try to go about their day with an angry mob outside the house.

The set is a run-down living room, with a broken and fragmented staircase leading up to the only door in the room, which has an impossibly high ceiling. The sense of being trapped in this room only heightens as the first scenes progress and the tension between mother (Maggie Steed) and daughter is played out.

TRAPPED: Maggie Steed (left) and Nicola Walker play out a distant mother-daughter relationship. Credit: Johan Persson

We learn that Anna’s father, Edward (Alun Armstrong), is a few days from retiring and that a party is being planned in his honour for the following week. However, an ever-growing group of disgruntled students are demonstrating outside his house, protesting his use of the cane in his earlier career.

The family dynamic is cold and distressing.  We’re watching an argument between generations, in which an outdated older generation cannot comprehend the ideas of the next. And there’s an introduction to further intergenerational misunderstandings in the use of the term snowflake by Edward early in the play.

The family begin to appear somehow more trapped in this room, as the ceiling lowers and the trapdoor to the attic is suddenly within reach. Anna cannot help but regress back to the young girl who desperately wants to help her father when she hollers: “I’m holding the ladder!”

The script sometimes falls in to a slightly forced debate over the changes taking place in the UK education system, with the parents battling against Anna’s support for academies taking over failing schools. Coupled with this, and despite otherwise solid performances, it felt at times that the interruptions in the script hadn’t quite been mastered, and the cast were clumsily stopping mid-sentence.

But the tension, raw emotion and dark humour in this play are brilliantly balanced by the cast, and I was drawn in to their struggle for the duration. This is absolutely not an enjoyable watch, but it is a well-crafted exploration of the cyclical nature of violence and the myriad things that can go unsaid in all families.

Feature image credit: Johan Persson

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