The Children's Hour

  • Theatre
  • West End
Critics' choice
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© Johan Perrson
Martha Dobie (Elisabeth Moss) and Karen Wright (Keira Knightley)

Apparently, one ticket for this classy revival starring Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss (‘Mad Men’) sold for £900. ‘The Children’s Hour’ isn’t worth a grand, but it is good: stylish, tense, well acted and with a beguiling cipher at its heart – qualities that ‘Mad Men’ fans will recognise and applaud.

When Lillian Hellman’s 1934 drama was revived in 1953, a year after her electrifying (and career-impairing) refusal to ‘cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions’, it was nicknamed ‘The McCarthyite’s Hour’. It’s a subtler, slighter precursor to Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, with sapphism instead of witchcraft as the slander that kills.

Knightley and Moss are Karen and Martha, a progressive pair of ’30s schoolteachers, falsely outed as lesbians by a problem pupil. In a drama whose crucial accusation is a whisper and whose crimes are crimes of the imagination, much depends on atmosphere. Director Ian Rickson makes Karen and Martha’s girls’ school a microcosmic hotbed of sexual impulses and prim ideals. In Rickson’s altered and much-improved opening, schoolgirl Mary (Bryony Hannah), the bad apple in this puritanical Eden, languorously explores a forbidden book. Her schoolmates catch the fever and rehearse Shakespeare’s sexiest play, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, with an achingly funny and accurate mixture of longing and incomprehension.

Hellman’s play, which presciently shows how a lie believed can consume the innocent in guilt, kills its characters by inches. Moss is mesmerising as career-girl Martha, giving out green-eyed flashes of jealousy when Knightley’s bobbed and beautiful Karen announces brightly that she is to marry her beau, local doctor Joe (Tobias Menzies). Later, she’s pitch perfect as a woman tortured by a lie with a grain of truth.

Knightley has less to do for most of the play: she’s typically polished and wary but cracks open her brittle veneer to carry the devastating final scene. But it’s Bryony Hannah’s turn as schoolgirl Mary that audiences will argue about: she imbues this damaged little rich girl with the brutal charisma of a waterfront boss. Stylistically, she’s something else. But there’s power here, as well as the psychologically convincing hint that she is precociously screwed up by the desires she so nastily denounces in others.

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