There’s always a scramble at the box office when a renowned Hollywood star graces the West End with their presence. Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour boasts two such stars, Elisabeth Moss (Mad men; Girl, Interrupted) and Keira Knightley (Atonement; Pirates of the Caribbean).
First staged on Broadway in 1934, The Children’s Hour tells the story of Martha Dobie (Moss) and Karen Wright (Knightley), the headmistresses of a girls’ boarding school in 1930s New England. When a difficult pupil sparks a rumour that damages the reputation of the school, Martha and Karen are pushed into a chain of events that threatens their careers, relationships, and reputations.
Children’s Hour’s popularity rests on the shoulders of its celebrity appeal rather than the play itself. This, then, creates considerable pressure on the two leads to deliver stunning performances. Luckily, Knightley and Moss both gave moving and dynamic turns. Having seen Knightley in the Misanthrope, I knew she could deliver – and although she did not exceed my expectations, she certainly met them. As anticipated, Moss also played her role with eloquence and arousing emotion. Although a thorough study of character is displayed, this may not be her greatest performance, perhaps due to the limitations set by the script and direction. The ending scene, in which the play takes some dramatic turns and reaches its peak, gave the headmistresses their chance to shine as actors, and caused an uncomfortable but magnificent silence amongst the audience, which one that stayed with me long after the curtain had fallen.
Aside from the two leads, solid and moving performances were given by the whole cast, including the “children” (in fact the youngest member of the cast is Lisa Backwell, aged 20, who some may recognise as Pandora “Panda” Moon from the TV drama Skins). Bryony Hannah was brilliant; extremely convincing in her performance as the malicious and vindictive child who provokes the disastrous events of the second half of the play. The tiny actress is actually 26 years of age, and played the role with just the right amount of childishness, balanced with the spiteful evil that defines her character.
Despite the praise I can’t help but heap onto the acting and production, I do think that the Children’s Hour lacks something. I can’t say it’s the best play I’ve ever seen, but I wouldn’t say it was particularly atrocious either. Unfortunately, I think it was the script itself – and perhaps it’s a matter of personal preference – which I found unsatisfactory. Highly predictable, disjointed, and rather slow at the beginning, I left questioning the director’s claim that the issues it dealt with were just as relevant as they were when it premiered on Broadway. Indeed, the central themes of the play – rumours, forbidden love, courage, shame, and moreover, the terrible consequences that one lie can have – have all been done before, and done better. I couldn’t help draw connections between All My Sons and the Crucible, both of which I had seen in the summer, both of which left a greater impression on my mind. As I said before, if it were not for Knightley and Moss, I doubt the play would attract as much attention as it has.
A simple but dramatic tale of how a lie can have devastating effects, as well as a moving, if at times, predictable story; I would recommend The Children’s Hour, it just won’t be making my list of most memorable theatre moments in the long run.