Review: The Children’s Hour, Comedy Theatre

Mrs Mortar (Carol Kane) with her pupils. Photo by Johan Persson.

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.

Rating: ★★★☆☆
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.

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About manipillai

Oh, just a few of my thoughts on theatre.
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3 Responses to Review: The Children’s Hour, Comedy Theatre

  1. David Blanar says:

    You’re more generous about this production than I, the material struck me flaccid and weak; not only does the play labour to its denoument, I agree with you: the conclusion is thoroughly baffling.

    As for the performances: a bit of a mixed bag. It was my first time seeing Keira Knightley and I was pleasantly surprised at her presence and command. As I shuffled out, I overheard murmurs from fellow patrons accusing her of over-acting and – if honest – for moments she was guilty as charged.

    Yet I suspect this was a consequence of an underwhelming turn by Elisabeth Moss, who I found fidgety and ungrounded — bad TV habits, no doubt. She simply could not. stand. still. to deliver her lines, making for a disjointed and nervous performance.

    I found the young girls the most refreshing element to the show. Perhaps because it’s their maturity level most appropriate the script?

    Ooo … harsh. But fair.

    2 stars for me … and I can’t in good conscience recommend it, particularly at the prices on offer.

  2. I have to agree with the murmurs you heard – Keira Knightley was stagey for most parts of the play but she handles the touching scene between Karen and her fiance with finesse. Elisabeth Moss gives a more consistent performance although her Martha has shades of Moss’ character in Mad Men. West End productions that have big names and charge steep prices are rarely good value for money. That said, I was proved wrong with Flare Path and In a Forest Dark and Deep this week.

  3. David Blanar says:

    And yet at the end, I would have much rather watched another hour of Keira than Elisabeth (obviously performing something written by someone else).

    Perhaps it was start-of-run nerves, her ceaseless pottering nearly did my head in.

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