Browse reviews

FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

The Cane is the first Mark Ravenhill play to be directed by long-standing colleague Vicky Featherstone, featuring Chloe Lamford’s bare peeling wallpaper room and lowering ceiling. Natasha Chivers’ lighting employs a neon strip to emphasize blackouts. David McSeveney’s sound envelops crowd menace flecked with more unearthly noises. Till January 26th.


Why a brick through the window? A long-estranged daughter confronts her evasive, chillingly dismissive mother. She brings a card from her children their grandmother’s never met. Both are furious in different ways. They’re scarred on the inside by the same person. Others sported visible weals from him, and still smart. Edward, father and husband is retiring as deputy head after forty-five years to a planned celebration. He’s universally loved. So why are two hundred ex-pupils beating furiously on his doors? Where’s the headmaster, due any moment?


At first sight, Mark Ravenhill’s The Cane is a surprisingly straight play especially for the Court, here directed by Vicky Featherstone featuring Chloe Lamford’s bare peeling wallpaper room. The back wall’s scarred with axe marks where Anna as a child chased her father round and round. A single set of stairs stage-right leads up to a study where Edward’s filing his response to a ‘failing school’ report from Ofsted.


Anna, herself on that side of Ofsted, might even help him frame it, he discovers. The stairs’ sides however are cut as if seen in section; but roughly. It’s as if the house dissects itself and reads the anatomy lesson. No-one’s ever papered over those axe scars and ten years ago her parents bonfired all Anna’s old possessions. A high ceiling with a loft and ladder isn’t fixed, but lowers; there’s room for scaling a forlorn attic above; things brought down.


Natasha Chivers’ lighting employs a neon strip to emphasize blackouts, to punctuate scenes in an irregular fashion in a single sweep of one hundred and five minutes. David McSeveney’s sound envelops crowd menace flecked with more unearthly noises; shadows shift behind the window not already broken.


Maggie Steed’s Maureen superbly traces a woman whose flinty dismissal spins through dithery evasion, in a classic Ravenhill gambit where she talks at an angle through Nicola Walker’s Anna whose steely directness scrapes against her. Steed spits out ‘snowflakes’. We’ve seen this in shorts like The Mother where a woman talks through two military personnel to stop their news.


Here though in a longer piece it can’t be sustained, and Steed registers Maureen’s slow facing-up to Anna, then Edward. Her pulse and delivery though continually sashay distraction, even dementia. Though goaded by Anna, Maureen’s demands for transparency, initially demanding they destroy evidence, turns to rebellion. From wanting evidence burned she moves on all Edward’s creepy mementos, a clear-out for a loft-conversion.


Walker’s avenging Anna maintains a simmering tension – both glinting towards some mission, and acting as probe and witness, seeming non-judgemental. She’s no simple restorer of any justice, though she advises truth and reconciliation with the eponymous cane: ’Stand before the school, acknowledge… mistakes have been learnt from… ‘I was working at the time within an accepted framework’…’


Her prized academies as Edward points out, feature dead-silent corridors (already current practice) and Anna herself boasts of academies where all children are compelled to stare straight ahead, ‘preparing for the world of work’.


If this doesn’t frighten Anna it rightly troubles Edward. Ravenhill ensures loyalties shift. Edward was licensed too. But then Anna as a girl was taunted by children hearing ‘screams all day long’ imagining children chained and flogged.


Edward later ‘won’t be bullied’ by Anna but it’s this that’s at the heart of the play. Though it broaches the systemic use of corporal punishment, that’s deliberately kept low-key: all canings signed off by parents and headmaster, no whiff of sado-pathic or paedophilic behaviour. Anna goads this by suggesting of course non-judgementally Edward might have pornographic material up there. No. But when he finds pupils have been allowed up by Maureen to rummage around something snaps, and it’s not the cane, which Maureen finds she can’t snap in two.


Alun Armstrong’s rumpled patriarch, mouthing new nostrums and excusing himself, squirms on occasion to a semblance of reason. It’s when his attic secrets are invaded that we see the hidden Edward shouting obscenities with streaks of misogyny he thought he’d buried. Armstrong’s touch-off furies emerge with sudden ferocity: you see layers falling off.


All three performances are superbly judged; shaded with distraction, menace and hurt. Walker’s more straight-seeming role is cleverly nuanced; Steed and Armstrong register everything on bewildered faces.


Edwards’s outburst precipitates decisions of Anna’s that looking at what’s been made available you might guess at. Ravenhill too suggests that Anna’s incitement to ritual and re-abuse strikes at the heart of this play. It’s not really about corporal punishment, but the effects of such institutionalised violence on perpetrator and victim. Ravenhill takes care to strip away the easier get-outs of monstering. Edward’s actions and indeed psyche are within the book, but ‘snowflakes’ are taking charge. Again Ravenhill doesn’t let off Anna either with her chilling techno-serf future, but the effect of administering signed-off weals seems visited on the family, bringing out Edward’s overt bullying and latent emotional violence.


If baying students seem improbable, there’s a Brighton case of a master so sadistic that only death slipped him from prosecution, and boys from Ravenhill’s generation were phoning to threaten him as he lay dying. As one of those hurled face-first into a fireplace, I shed no tears. Others receive counselling for it, and the school’s still apologizing more profusely than Anna suggests Edward should.


This is why Ravenhill’s apparently muted play works so well, especially when so mesmerisingly directed by Featherstone. It’s all plausible, but the banality of small evils, and that oh-so-emblematic ledger pale beside the collateral and far deeper damage wrought on wife and daughter by a pillar of a regime that can’t always change its bloody spots.