Review: The Cane (Royal Court Theatre, London)

Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker in Mark Ravenhill’s The Cane at London’s Royal Court.

I’m so late to the party for my first of the year that by the time you read this, the run is likely to be over. At the very least you may be able to either beg or borrow a ticket or queue in the vague hope of a return.

For context, this was a birthday gift so I was there in an unofficial capacity, as a punter simply out for the pleasure of being in the theatre watching a story unfold. The end result however made me reach for my laptop, cheer and punch the air in celebration of brazen, razor sharp and utterly compelling story telling.

No stranger to controversy, Mark Ravenhill has penned what appears to be his most conservative new piece of work yet. Simply staged, The Cane is a three character play that in the hands of a lesser team could come across as a kitchen sink drama at best. In the hands of Director Vicky Featherstone, Designer Chloe Lamford and cast Maggie Steed, Nicola Walker and Alun Armstrong, Ravenhill’s The Cane has at not only wrapped up 2018’s offerings in style but also fired the starting pistol to a breathtaking 2019 in theatre.

Armstrong’s Edward is retiring. After 45 years he is hanging up his gown and looking forward to a colourful pageant celebrating his glorious career. What stands in his way however, is the growing mob of angry voices and hurled bricks assembling outside their house.

Nicola Walker and Alun Armstrong

In a move reminiscent of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, Ravenhill has constructed a generational drama that sees old guard father’s downfall in a world that is being taken over by new guard daughter who has very different outlook, uses different language and employs different tactics.

As long suffering ally/target/wife Maureen, Maggie Steed runs the gamut of emotions in a beautifully measured performance that ultimately sees her barely holding the house together, let alone her own life. Armstrong’s Edward is a carefully balanced portrait of a fragile ego letting go of a career that he feels deserves recognition different to the attention it is currently receiving.

Nicola Walker and Maggie Steed

With daughter Anna, Nicola Walker expertly portrays the ultimate duck on water. Calm above, gracefully gliding from one issue to another whilst barely below the surface, she is working overtime to remain afloat and in control. The constant reminder of the axe incident visible throughout thanks to the gouged walls is an indication as to how long this struggle has gone on for.

All three actors glide effortlessly through Ravenhill’s brilliantly chopped up, talked over and interrupted prose with charm, rage and theatrical chutzpah. Ravenhill’s work is a gift to a bold and brave team of actors but is a challenge to the director. Royal Court Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone takes up the challenge and produces a finely tuned, rapid fire and utterly compelling 100 minutes of theatre. It challenges, it provokes, it entertains. Most of all it attempts to redress the balance from blaming the individual to blaming the system. The cane of the title is more than just a literal representation of a once abused item. It’s a bold move and certainly controversial but then again, if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be part of the Ravenhill canon.

2019 has got off to a blistering start. Happy birthday to me.

Mark Ravenhill’s The Cane runs until Saturday 26th January 2019 at the Royal Court Theatre. Full details can be found here.

Photos courtesy of The Royal Court website.

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