The Children's Hour

Lillian Hellman

Comedy Theatre

(2011)

Review by Philip Fisher

The star vehicle play is back in town. Ian Rickson has been able to cast Keira Knightley, one of film's hottest properties, alongside a trio of high profile American imports in The Children's Hour, a show for which tickets have already reputedly changed hands for a four figure sum.

Not since Madonna or naked Nicole Kidman appeared in the West End has this kind of commercial frenzy been seen.

With a single significant exception, there is the opportunity to enjoy a good night out at a play that scandalised both the USA and UK in the thirties and, perhaps as a result, enjoyed a long Broadway run.

The acting contains some real highlights and pleasingly, the largely unproven stage skills of Miss Knightley are now exercised far more extensively than they were in The Misanthrope and she comes through with flying colours.

Rickson directs well enough, starting out intelligently with a lovely mimed prologue set in a boarding school for the daughters of wealthy society types.

This establishment is run by kindly, sophisticated Karen (Miss Wright no less) and rawer Martha, played respectively by KK and Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss.

They are constantly tormented not only by their pre-pubescent charges but also Martha's awful ditzy Aunt Lily, a sponger of the first order with a Germanic accent and talent for whining and wheedling. She is played by Carol Kane, who has won Emmys for Taxi and was also once nominated for an Oscar.

The school seems like any other, as spoilt girls refuse to behave as they should, while teachers attempt to inculcate knowledge and good behaviour, though at times they seem to be fighting a hopeless battle.

What seems like a witty, light evening begins to turn sour quite early, when Bryony Hannah as spoilt little Mary Tilford gets chastised once too often and allows her persecution complex to start a chain of events from which there is no return.

She runs away to doting Granny Amelia, Triple Crown (Oscar/Emmy/Tony) winner Ellen Burstyn in fine form, and accuses the school's principals of a sin that dare not speak its name.

This is where a problem arises. The Children's Hour has a plot that aspires to be barely believable but doesn't quite make it. Why the unfounded accusations of a couple of hysterical schoolgirls would be taken seriously by the old lady, let alone a court of law and then the gossip-loving world is never explained.

Similarly, while it is reasonable for the two innocent women to get stressed by events that rob them of their livelihood, their reactions are often inappropriate considering their obvious intelligence.

The pair do however receive remarkable support from stoic Tobias Menzies' noble Doctor Joe, the old lady's nephew and Karen's fiancé. Inexplicably, the latter drives the poor dope away, seemingly entirely to allow the play to advance to the conclusion that Lillian Hellman was striving for from the outset.

Fans of the stars will enjoy the chance to see their idols in the flesh and probably forgive them the melodrama. While a top price ticket at £60 face value for the privilege might seem worth every penny, don't shell out £1,000 unless your bonus makes this sum meaningless.

They might be radiant beauties and iconic performers but surely nobody is worth that much for 2½ hours of viewing from the stalls.

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for The Children's Hour