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The Children’s Hour Review Comedy Theatre London

Keira Knightley on stage? Having missed her in ‘The Misanthrope’, I really wanted to find out what she’s like as a theatre actress this time around. I might not be a fan as such but like to see ‘big names’ on stage every now and then and this would be interesting. So as soon as I read about her upcoming appearance in ‘The Children’s Hour’ at the Comedy Theatre, I got some tickets.

The Childrens Hour

When the show was only a few days away, I finally decided to find out what the 1934 stage drama by Lillian Hellman is all about. I watched the film starring Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner the night before travelling up to London.  Heavy stuff! A good film all right but it left me slightly depressed. Karen Wright and Martha Dobie – two teachers who run a boarding school for girls – are accused of having a lesbian affair by Mary Tilford, a disgruntled student. The lives of the two women are turned upside down and nothing will ever be the same again.

So when I was waiting for the curtains to go up and the house lights to be dimmed, I wasn’t sure what to expect and was in fact slightly worried I might not enjoy it much at all.

I couldn’t have been more wrong! I was captured from start to finish. The Children’s Hour is a complex, thought-provoking and emotional play and needs good acting to make it work – and the performances at the Comedy were superb all round.

Elisabeth Moss’s performance stood out for me. Her interpretation of Martha showed her as a strong, even tough, hard-working woman whose true feelings and vulnerable nature only start to surface towards the end of the second act. A very believable portrayal of this complex character!

While personally I would have loved to see Dame Judi Dench as Mrs Tilford, Ellen Burstyn soon won me over with a very convincing performance. You can certainly tell that she has won several Oscars and Oscar nominations.

Mary Tilford – the evil little brat – is played by Bryony Hannah. Considering that she is in her mid-twenties, Hannah plays her role as the nasty, scheming teenager very well indeed. In fact, she plays it so well that one might have wished for less body language at times.  Less is sometimes more, especially when you’re playing an evil psycho.  I guess most people felt like slapping her (the character as well as the actress) by the end of the evening.

Very good performances were also had by all of the schoolgirls, Tobias Menzies (Karen’s fiancée and Mrs Tilford’s nephew) and Carol Kane, who plays Martha’s aunt – who I feel deserves a special mention.  Kane’s Lily Mortar would have come across as an utterly lovable if sad character if it wasn’t for her superficial, selfish and uncaring behaviour towards her niece – a contrast very well devised  by Kane.

So what about ’the star’ then? Is Keira Knightley a good stage actress? Yes, I think so.  Did she carry the play? No. A combination of superb performances all round made the play work.  Maybe  Knightley doesn’t come across as a natural stage actress who has got ‘it’ (whatever that might be). Being a well-acclaimed film actress obviously doesn’t make you a great stage actress, or vice-versa. Let’s face it, not everyone can be a Judi Dench.

How some reviews of Knightley’s  performance can focus on her looks is beyond me – is it just jealous people who enjoy slagging her off whenever the opportunity arises? I wouldn’t call myself a fan so I feel I can look at her performance fairly objectively.

I think she played Karen very well, especially the scenes with her fiancée  and the last scene stood out for me, revealing some of the emotional depth that Knightley is capable of portraying as an actress. When the cast were taking their bows, Knightley only managed a weak smile – she was still in character, which says a lot about her abilities as a stage actress.  Her American accent might have been less than convincing and she seemed a bit wooden in places but she had really got into her role by the end of the second act. There must be a lot of pressure on this young actress with some vile critics scrutinizing her every move.  Knightley has got potential and deserves a chance. Go and see her in the play as an important part of the play but not as the main ingredient. You won’t be disappointed.

The children’s Hour is a harrowing play that is still relevant today in many ways.  It’s about what lies can do (especially ones that might have a grain of truth in them), about how everything is a consequence of people’s actions (or lack thereof), about friendship, love, guilt and (sexual) identity issues.  Some critics say the play is ‘flawed’. It worked for me and I think Hellman cleverly interweaves the different topics. Best of all: while the film left me feeling low, despite all the destruction, the play allowed me to feel something like hope.

Content updated 1st May 2014