It can’t really be denied that Keira Knightley, rather than the actual play itself, will be the reason most people hand over the dosh for the West End’s latest offering. Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, written in 1934, is relatively unknown these days, but it really shouldn’t be. Perhaps it’s that revivals are normally reserved for A-Level staples A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, but Hellman’s writing is that of overlooked brilliance, and director Ian Rickson’s adaptation is superb.
Knightley and Elisabeth Moss play the headmistresses of a small-town all-girl boarding school who are wrongly accused of an illicit lesbian affair by maligned and disgruntled pupil Mary Tilford (Bryony Hannah). Tilford concocts the lie so that her grandmother won’t send her back to boarding school after she has run away. The play strikes a similar note to 2007’s Atonement by focussing on the repercussions of a lie, and the ability of such mendacity to completely unravel the lives of those affected by it. It’s a fascinating moral quandary, and The Children’s Hour will equally hit home for those familiar with 2008’s big screen adaptation of Doubt.
The expositional first act may drag a little as we are forced to watch small girls bicker for far too long, but the second and third acts are taut, tightly written drama. Rarely have I seen an audience so completely riveted and silenced by the performances on stage as line after line of astoundingly crafted dialogue is delivered. Playing Tilford’s grandmother is legend of the silver screen Ellen Burstyn, and as you might expect, she is nothing short of phenomenal (check out her monologue from Requiem for a Dream on YouTube and wonder out loud how cheeky wench Julia Roberts robbed Burstyn of an Oscar). Knightley and Moss both shine as the leads, Moss in particular since her character’s tortured soul gives her more to work with. Knightley doesn’t stray too far from her comfort zone in playing an uptight headmistress, but she is thoroughly convincing nonetheless. Unfortunately, Knightley’s American accent is often questionable and this can actually be quite distracting from what’s happening on stage.
The production itself is very effective. Scene changes are few and far between, and when they do occur, appropriately dressed stage hands casually move furniture around the stage in dimmed light. Such dilatory movement works well; it seems an incredibly natural way to transition between scenes. The cavernous room that the characters occupy emphasises the idea of individuals manipulated by a larger force, as well as imparting a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. Also worthy of mention is the lighting, which is deftly worked and plays an unexpectedly important role in shifting tone and mood.
The Children’s Hour is definitely worth catching in the West End. The A-list cast are fantastic, the scripting is lively and engaging, and the story thoroughly captivating. If you are a fan of either Atonement or Doubt, you’ll likely be thoroughly moved by Lillian Hellman’s under-appreciated work.