The Cane – Royal Court

“Why would they attack the most popular teacher in the school?” That’s the question posed at the beginning of this tense three-hander by Mark Ravenhill. The answer, of course, is in the title.

Alun Armstrong plays Edward, a teacher on the brink of retirement, whose home is besieged by a baying mob of children and adults. A brick has been lobbed through the window. There’s never any doubt that worse is to come.

But is the real enemy already inside the house? Edward, and his nervous wife Maureen (Maggie Steed), are being visited by their estranged daughter Anna (Nicola Walker).

“It was impossible to love you,” her mother tells her coldly, as she recounts how Anna ran amok with an axe as a child. The wall in the drab living room still bears the scars.

Walker, brilliant in the role, is the real focal point of the play. Anna asks questions like a detective rather than a daughter. She’s keen to help fix the the ugly situation outside, yet fails to recall her own adolescent rage.

Director Vicky Featherstone expertly turns up the tension as revelations about the past (and the contents of the attic) emerge. Even though the ending is easy to predict, it’s still shocking to witness.

In a social media age when five year old tweets can wreck a career or a job application, Ravenhill asks some searching questions about past actions affecting the present, and the nature of responsibility.