REVIEW: Children’s Hour, The Comedy Theatre London 2nd April 2011 starring Keira Knightley, Elisabeth Moss, Ellen Burstyn & Carol Kane

Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour is set in a boarding school in 1930s New England run by two women, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie. When a student runs away from the school, they become entangled in a story of deceit, shame and courage.

A potent exploration of a culture of fear, The Children’s Hour was banned in several cities in America and also in London, though it did receive its UK premiere in 1936. This Crucible-esque play – though it pre-dates Arthur Miller’s classic by two decades – tells the story of a teacher whose entire life is threatened by the rumours of an angry child.

“This production of The Children’s Hour stars Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss. Knightley plays Karen Wright, who, along with friend and colleague Martha Dobie – played by Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss – has fought and struggled to build up a school for girls. Though there is tension surrounding Wright’s impending marriage to local doctor Joseph Cardin (Tobias Menzies) and its effect on the school and Dobie, everything is rosy. That is until one child runs away and whispers an accusation in the ear of her doting grandmother in the hope of avoiding a return to the school.”

“Last time the Pirates Of The Caribbean star trod the boards, making her West End debut in The Misanthrope in 2009, she received a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for her efforts. Whether she will be honoured in the same way for this performance won’t be known until this time next year, though she certainly makes the switch from stage to screen seem easy, her willowy, elongated frame perfectly at home under the proscenium arch of the Comedy Theatre.”

“While the cast boasts an embarrassment of riches – Knightley and Moss are joined by Academy, Tony and Emmy Award-winner Ellen Burstyn as the all too easily convinced grandparent, and Emmy Award-winner Carol Kane as an eccentric failed-actress aunt – it is British stage regular Bryony Hannah who delivers the stand out performance as the repulsive Mary Tilford. She makes the blood boil as the manipulative child with a very big chip on very small shoulders, who believes the world is against her and layers lie upon lie upon lie, to disguise her own wrongs.”

 

“While the first half, even with Hannah’s livewire performance, takes its time building the pressure, the second delves into the devastating fallout for all of the characters, giving the headline stars their chance to shine, despite a script that, on occasion, sounds dated.”

“Times have changed since the play was written in 1933, and the content of the malicious rumours may not have quite the same effect in the 21st century. But in a world where tabloids and magazines, social media and the internet spread gossip as though it were news, the danger of believing every unsubstantiated word you hear has never been more apparent.”

I personally found Keira Knightley’s performance well judged and accomplished as was that of Elizabeth Moss, however Moss did resort to wild facial contortions at times, though not as maddening as those of Bryony Hannah who spent the whole evening contorting her face to the point of grotesqueness. I am sure that from the circle or balcony this wouldn’t have been as noticable but from the front row it became a maddening source of annoyance. The play itself was very much of its time and the ending lost its impact because it didn’t resonate throught the years to the present.

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