Alun Armstrong’s Edward is retiring after 45 years at the same comprehensive school – a career which included doling out strokes to rule-breaking boys – while his wife Maureen is helping to put together a send-off. Then their estranged daughter Anna turns up with the jargon of academy schools and inspectorates and a whole load of history to throw back in her parents’ faces.
Mark Ravenhill’s new play, directed by Vicky Featherstone, is tense and slippery. Part of its power is the way it’s constantly unsure of the seriousness of what it’s dealing with. Was a whipped hand really all that bad?
Occasionally a bit by-numbers – one character on one side of the argument and the other, the other –Ravenhill’s expertise lies in shifting the balance: who, at any moment, is the most reasonable one, or the most persuasive? It changes with almost every line. And all of them are hateful at one point or another.
Ravenhill uses corporal punishment to explore the way the recent past is uncovered and processed today. At points it feels like the theme is a stand-in for exploring the #MeToo movement, especially in the language of one generation against another; “it was just what happened in those days” against outrage that it could ever have been the case.
But the bigger point is the insidiousness of misogyny within all of this. Armstrong’s Edward is progressive in many senses, such as embracing the cultural diversity of the comp, but so horrendous in the way he bullies his wife, with Armstrong showing quick flashes of real nastiness.
All three actors are fantastic. Maggie Steed is highly strung as Maureen, speaking fast and bitterly. Her indignation covers her fear – of both her husband and her daughter. She turns every line into a sententious, spat-out insult towards her daughter to ward off the threat of her life being overturned.
Nicola Walker, by contrast, is perpetually calm and relaxed even in her moments of verbal and physical violence. Anna is so completely in control. Walker is completely, utterly enthralling when she’s talking.
Chloe Lamford adds an uncanny quality with her set: on the surface it’s a drab, completely recognisable living room with beige, patterned wallpaper. It looks so plain and empty. But the longer you look, the more it reveals its signs of trauma: axe marks in the wall, a panel of peeled wallpaper, the carpet cut ragged. And why is there only one chair? And why is the ceiling so very high?
The ending, although necessary, also feels unlikely within the world the play has built. That pay-off, or rather punishment, is a bit diminished. But overall the shifting ground, the shaking foundations, make the play a squirm-inducing thing. Partly that’s in hearing misogynist language or being forced to think about the physical reality of corporal punishment, but it’s also to do with the way Ravenhill writes hypocrisy and double standards and rug-pulls like they’re the easiest thing in the world.