Three of the Best: The Cane at the Royal Court

Saturday 12th January 2019, matinée

It’s been a long time since we went to the Royal Court, nearly 8 years, but we were lured back there by the prospect of seeing Nicola Walker in a play with an intriguing subject – the cane.

The play is set in the home of a deputy headteacher who is about to retire, but whose preparations for his retirement ‘do’ are increasingly overshadowed by a growing mob of pupils who are gathering outside his house, throwing a brick through the window.  Is it because they have found out that years ago he was the teacher responsible for caning children?  Add to that an unfavourable inspection from Ofsted which must be challenged, and this is far from a peaceful Sunday afternoon.

At 100 minutes, the play whizzes by, with writing that is both witty and slick.  The interplay between the deputy headteacher (Alun Armstrong) and his estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker) is a pleasure to watch.  She has followed him into the field of education, but in his mind has joined the ‘enemy’, the Academy movement, of which she is an almost fanatical advocate, and he can’t work out if she has come back to help him regain control of ‘his’ school or to gloat as it is swallowed up in the ignominy of being a failing school.  Maggie Steed meanwhile takes maternal cruelty to new lengths until we discover that she may have been more or a victim than a bully.

Our main issue with the play is that we couldn’t decide whether it was an ‘issue play’ or a family drama, an indication that something hasn’t quite gelled, as it should be possible to do both seamlessly.  There were also certain distractions which made it hard to engage with the drama.  The set is a deliberately semi-naturalistic affair with minimal furniture and half-finished stairs, making the house look a little like a bomb site. Yet there is no real reason for it and there is something intensely irritating about watching three people hover around one dining chair and a low coffee table.  Yes, this is a dysfunctional family, but there is no reason to believe they don’t have normal furniture.  If you are going to go minimal, just do it, but a halfway house tends to reinforce the impression that the play itself is half-baked.  There is also a very elaborate attic which appears halfway through, but despite many descriptions of it being chock-full of stuff, it appears empty.

The writing too seems slightly unrealistic and lacking in nuance.  Some of the events are hard to believe, for example the deputy headteacher’s wife, herself a former teacher, allowing pupils from the school to run riot in the attic; the idea that a mob of children would be allowed to assemble for days in suburbia without the police being called is also somewhat far-fetched.  There is plenty of interesting and entertaining exposition, but the voice of the mother is strangely absent, and the debate, which seems to settle on a teaching ‘dinosaur’ and caner of children against a devotee of the academisation of schools couldn’t be more polarised.  It almost feels like a pair of straw people tearing shreds out of each other, which perhaps reflects what goes on in dysfunctional families, but if the intention was to provide some insight into the modern education system, that aim was not fulfilled.

The Cane remains an entertaining watch, full of satisfying dialogue, some surprising moments, and overall a piece of drama raised up by an excellent cast.

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