Theatre Review - 'The Children's Hour'Posted by Alexander Hay
A flawed classic is resurrected with a superb cast and production
The power of a lie and the way it can destroy the lives of individuals is forcefully conveyed in Ian Rickson's brilliant revival of Lillian Hellman's once banned play The Children's Hour at the Comedy Theatre.
The year is 1934, the place a New England boarding school for girls, where a difficult pupil, Mary, takes revenge on the teachers, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, she regards as her tormentors after she is reprimanded for taking some discarded flowers from a rubbish bin and giving them as a present to Martha. She accuses them of conducting a secret lesbian affair and the consequences are devastating.
A moving story of deceit shame and courage, Hellman's potent exploration of a culture of fear remains startlingly relevant. The drama has been criticised for taking a while to get going but I found the whole production totally absorbing – the first act helps set the scene for the tragedy that later ensues and helps us get to the heart of the characters and makes us understand just what makes them tick.
This play was said to have influenced Arthur Miller to write The Crucible but although this work lacks the moral force and poetic language of that disturbing study of persecution and hysteria, it nevertheless carries a strong emotional charge and is, in my view, more subtle. It is a play which courageously negotiates the tricky territory between deep friendship and sexual desire and, although the tension is maintained throughout, when the mood darkens and changes focus after the accusation is made, it becomes really gripping.
The production has become a West End hot ticket, no doubt due to the attraction of its two stars, Keira Knightley, best know for her performances in the films Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and Elisabeth Moss, who appears in the Golden Globe nominated television drama series Mad Men as Karen and Martha respectively. Gaunt, yet sprightly in dowdy schoolmarmish clothes, Knightley radiates lonely despair as Karen, while Moss, making her West End debut, captures the energy and cheerfulness of the more extrovert Martha. Both actresses here are on top form and command attention, turning a good play into a memorable one.
I was also impressed by relative newcomer Bryony Hanna as the devious and manipulative Mary Tilford, demonstrating the terrible effects of false witness, Ellen Burstyn her stately Grandmother who gets taken in by her lie and Tobias Menzies as Karen's easily duped fiancé.
This without doubt is a production to set the West End alight.
Plays until April 30
Box office: 0844 871 7622
Press: Janine Shalom for Premier PR 0207 292 8330.
By Laurence Green
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