The Children's Hour

Lillian Hellman
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
(2008)

Newly-appointed artistic director Sarah Frankcom (joining other current artistic directors Greg Hersov and founder Braham Murray) has revived Lillian Hellman's great but controversial 1934 debut play The Children's Hour.

Karen Wright and Martha Dobie have worked hard to establish their small private boarding school for girls, and now that everything is starting to run smoothly, Karen is planning her wedding to Dr Joseph Cardin. However when they punish pupil Mary Tilford, a compulsive liar and a manipulative bully, she concocts a story to her grandma about the two female teachers having a sexual affair. Mrs Tilford pulls Mary out of school and telephones all of the parents to tell them to do the same, and she will not be persuaded that Mary's story is false.

Whilst the alleged homosexual affair itself is not as shocking as it would have been in 1934, the play still works very powerfully as a tale of injustice that makes you want to shout out at the characters not to be so stupid and stubborn. This is helped by some powerful performances from the actors. June Watson gives a wonderful performance as Mrs Tilford, showing her as caring and intelligent before she commits the act that destroys Karen and Martha and never falling back on a two-dimensional portrayal of stubbornness and intolerance.

Charlotte Emmerson is superb as Martha, ably supported by Maxine Peake as Karen, and there is a warm but subtle portrayal of Dr Joe by Milo Twomey. Kate O'Flynn certainly gets across the spit personality of Mary, with quite a convincing sweet but dim face to the adults and a nasty, vindictive bullying side to the other girls when she doesn't get her way, which perhaps occasionally strays 'over the top'.

Liz Ascroft's set is based around a a map of the world set into a wooden floor, the upper level of which revolves between scenes, with a ceiling of concentric tubes that look like they are made from textured paper. Scene changes are choreographed to music and carried out by the cast, who also sit around and watch some of the scenes they are not in as part of the audience.

Both halves of the play begin in quite a lively way and then lose pace towards the end. This is particularly marked in the second act, where the last scene is delivered at such a tediously slow pace without variation that it starts to feel like an endurance test long before the end comes. This is such a shame, as there is so much in the play that is quite compelling, it is a pity to leave the audience feeling tired at the end. Hopefully this will pick up to some extent during the run.

David Chadderton