After having enjoyed splendid productions of Neil La Bute and Terrence Rattigan this week, Lillian Hellman’s 1930’s drama felt like a disappointing come down. Yes, I can see its central theme explored further in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible but I left the theatre last night unsure as to what Lillian Hellman intended us to feel.
Keira Knightley and Elizabeth Moss play school teachers, Karen and Martha respectively, who have invested their savings in their school, wanting to make a success of their hard work and ambition. In the midst of their charges, they have a particularly vindictive girl called Mary who runs home to her grandmother and accuses them of being lovers. Soon the other parents start taking their daughters out of school and tragedy follows.
What is unconvincing here is how easily the grandmother, played by Ellen Burstyn, believes her granddaughter Mary and believes her so without further investigation and questioning. This is incongruous given that when we first meet Ellen Burstyn’s grandmother, we see an old woman who is measured and who is calm. Bryony Hannah’s portrayal of Mary doesn’t help in this make-believe either; she makes you wonder how anyone, any adult, can possibly trust the girl. In fact, I might have felt differently had Bryony Hannah played her character with more subtlety instead of the irritatingly frenetic physical and facial gestures that we witnessed on stage.
Equally unconvincing is the weak characterisation of Martha’s aunt, Mrs Mortar, who gives elocution lessons in return for her keep. While she is portrayed by Carol Kane as a batty woman romanticising her past for desperate comic effects, it’s difficult to accept that the play’s ending might have been different had Martha’s aunt returned earlier than she did in the second half of the play.
Elisabeth Moss gives a solid performance as Martha who is a strong-headed ambitious woman and yet burdened by the feelings that she has for her friend. Keira Knightley comes into her own in the scene between Karen and her fiance (wonderfully played by Tobias Menzies) when she realises, with much pain and anguish, that she cannot marry him as she isn’t sure if he fully trusts her.
Director Ian Rickson’s production is a slow burner with effective atmospheric elements, particularly at the beginning of the play when you sense a school where repressed sexual awakenings are simmering on the surface. But, ultimately, it is the play that is flawed. There isn’t enough depth in the play’s second half to show the doubts planted in Karen’s mind about her friend Martha. And the final scene culminating in a suicide leaves the audience wondering what this play is supposed to be all about.
The Children’s Hour is at the Comedy Theatre till 7 May. Running time is approximately 2 hrs 40 mins with a 15 min interval.