“You ought not to say things like that about people, Mary”
After her (somewhat surprisingly) Olivier-nominated turn in The Misanthrope, Keira Knightley has returned to the same West End stage at the Comedy Theatre to further stretch her dramatic wings in a production of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour which also features the London stage debut of Ellen Burstyn, plus Carol Kane, Elizabeth Moss and a host of UK actresses in a rare play full of meaty parts for women. I hadn’t originally intended to see this show, the inflated ticket prices proving a step too far for a desperately uncomfortable theatre, especially in the (now no longer) cheap seats, but the offer from a kind soul to do the queuing for the £15 day seats meant that we ended up on the front row (A2&3) on a rainy Wednesday afternoon to be quite pleasantly surprised.
Set in 1930s New England at a small boarding school run by Karen and Martha, two women who after years of hard work and building up the school, are finally secure enough to begin looking at other things in life, in the case of Karen, marrying her patient fiancé. The only cloud on the horizon is problem child Mary, a massively disruptive influence and constant troublemaker who after yet another punishment is doled out to her, decides to run away to her grandmother’s house. But when an argument between Martha and her dippy aunt turns particularly rancorous with accusations of unnatural feelings towards Karen and is overheard by some of the other schoolgirls who pass on the tidbit to Mary, the malevolent child accuses her teachers of being secret lovers. It’s a charge which the grandmother takes deadly seriously, encouraging all the parents to withdraw their children and thereby threatening the very livelihood of the two women as they battle to clear their name.
Bryony Hannah works the same sort of tomboyish feel that she employed in Earthquakes in London to create a really rather vicious portrayal of the accusatory, manipulative Mary. It is astonishingly effective but almost too good though, too sharply defined as a demonic troublemaker as it makes it hard to believe that anyone, even Ellen Burstyn’s doting grandmother, would believe her stories. Burstyn is superb as the ageing grande dame, so convincingly blinded with love for her ward that she believes her unquestioningly. She also delivers the pre-show mobile phone advisory message which, although a small thing, was a really nice touch. I was less keen on Carol Kane’s kooky teacher, a little too overdramatic and over-egged in her performance for my liking.
But the real interest of the show for me was in the relationship between Karen and Martha and the way it is impacted by the accusations and it is excellently done by Elizabeth Moss and Keira Knightley. I’ve always liked Knightley anyway, despite what so many others think, but Ian Hickson really does tease something out of her here that I think would silence a large proportion of the naysayers with a devastating extended final scene as relationship after relationship finally crumbles under the strain, her work with Tobias Menzies here is the best, though most painfully heartbreaking, moment of the show, Knightley finding a truly tragic depth as her world collapses. And Moss is also strong with the more inscrutable Martha, whose hidden depths suggest that nothing is quite as clear-cut as it seems here, hinting at secrets with her ever-so-subtle nuances and half-hidden movements.
Written in 1934, it was quite a daring piece of theatre at the time in its treatment of lesbianism and was banned for a time. And with its theme of teenage hysteria and the damage it can wreak on adults when channeled through a vituperative figurehead, one can surely surmise that Arthur Miller had this play somewhere near the front of his mind when he wrote The Crucible nearly 20 years later. There’s no doubting that The Children’s Hour does feel a little bit dated now, the plotting isn’t quite tight enough to hold too much scrutiny, especially with the speed and absoluteness that people believe Mary’s accusations. But with Mark Thompson’s gorgeously atmospheric pale blue set and some assured direction from Ian Rickson which produces some stunning performances, this was an unexpectedly involving afternoon in the theatre.