THE CHILDREN’S HOUR
by Lilian Hellman.
Comedy Theatre Panton Street SW1Y 4DN To 7 May 2011.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mats Wed & Sat 2.30pm
Runs: 2hr 30min One interval.
TICKETS: 0844 871 7622.
Review: Carole Woddis 9 February.
As if she’d written it yesterday.
You have to hand it to the Ambassadors Theatre Group and Sonia Friedman for keeping `straight’ theatre alive in London’s West End.
`Straight’ is perhaps questionable here, given the subject of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, as controversial as ever and just as stormy.
Written in 1934, if she’d written it only yesterday it would still set curtains twitching. Mind you, if she had written it yesterday, I hope she’d have allowed a better outcome for her lesbian-inclined heroine than the Ibsenesque suicide she imposes on her.
Hellman’s drama makes depressing viewing, given this tragic climax. However, the triumph of Ian Rickson’s star-encrusted revival, headed by Keira Knightley with Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss making her London debut alongside, surprisingly, the legendary Ellen Burstyn and American comedienne, Carol Kane, is how he has retrieved Children’s Hour from its more melodramatic excesses.
And it does get very silly as the seeds of destruction are set in motion by troubled, spoilt teenager, Mary Tilford (an astounding Bryony Hannah, all fevered manipulation reminding one how close Arthur Miller’s Abigail in The Crucible is to Hellman’s Mary, written 19 years before) and fanned to explosive point by a loving grandmother who should know better.
Yet so cool is the over-riding design – Mark Thompson’s tall, slatted New England walls easily transform themselves from imposing school classroom into privileged Tilford home – and so sensitive Rickson’s handling of later scenes they take on a Beckett-like bleakness.
“What has happened, what are we waiting for?” asks a bewildered Karen (Knightley) as she and Martha (Moss) contemplate their school world destroyed by accusations that they have conducted an `unnatural relationship’.
Worse is yet to come. A grain of truth does exist. But even more shattering is the 15-minute exchange Hellman produces between Karen and her loyal doctor fiancée, Joe, and the collapse of trust between them.
To show the consequences such social malignity can cause in such emotionally perceptive terms, for me justifies a play that will always have its detractors but unquestionably here provides a terrific theatrical experiences. And Knightley? Still a tad gawky but improving.
Peggy Rogers: Eve Ponsonby.
Catherine: Isabel Ellison.
Lois Fisher: Marama Corlett.
Mrs Lily Mortar: Carol Kane.
Evelyn Munn: Lisa Backwell.
Helen Burton: Isabella Brazier-Jones.
Rosalie Wells: Amy Dawson.
Mary Tilford: Bryony Hannah.
Janet: Poppy Carter.
Karen Wright: Keira Knightley.
Martha Dobie: Elisabeth Moss.
Dr Joseph Cardin: Tobias Menzies.
Agatha: Nancy Crane.
Mrs Amelia Tilford: Ellen Burstyn.
Delivery Man: Nathan Nolan.
Director: Ian Rickson.
Designer: Mark Thompson.
Lighting: Neil Austin.
Sound: Paul Groothuis.
Music: Stephen Warbeck.
Dialect coach: Joan Washington.
Company Voice work: Patsy Rodenburg.
Resident Director: Leonie Kubigsteltig.
First performance of this production at the Comedy Theatre 22 January.