Review – The Children’s Hour, Comedy Theatre

They are very, very keen that you don’t take photos of Keira Knightley at the Comedy Theatre. Not only were there signs every three feet telling us not to take photos but the staff had obviously been told to tell every single person that it was forbidden and the gentleman at the door who usually searches bags for bombs or guns or ninja throwing stars or your own booze seemed only focused on getting us to answer one question: “Do you have a camera?”

We meekly said “no” of course, but at the time I felt like asking “So what if we do? Will the world really come to an end if I show my friends a photo of one of the most photographed women in the world on stage?” In retrospect, a more appropriate response would have been “Even if we did, do you think it would be any use given that the stage is barely visible from our £30 balcony seats?”

Yes, The Children’s Hour is not one for bargain hunters. Even in this first preview, and even with incredibly distant seats, the tickets for this show are eye-wateringly expensive. At least our seats were in the centre and were seats – spare a thought for those standing at the back of the balcony and on the side. I can say with certainty that the viewpoint offered from there is not ideal.

Anyway. The play. It’s all about two young women Karen (Keira Knightley) and Martha (Elisabeth Moss) who run a girls boarding school in New England in the 1930s. One of their students turns out to be a truly hateful little ball of spite (played very convincingly by Bryony Hannah, who I genuinely despised by the end of the evening) and accuse them of being lovers. The child’s grandmother (Ellen Burstyn, overdoing it a tad but otherwise very good), also Karen’s fiance’s aunt, takes action to close down the school, thereby ruining everybody’s lives. Interestingly, the plot is actually based on a case in Edinburgh in 1811, during which the judges declared female homosexuality to be “imaginary” and “as likely as thunder playing the tune of God Save The King.”

The central theme of the play – that of the terrible impact that lies can have – is essentially the same one that has been covered previously in much more interesting fashion in The Crucible or even, with apologies for the obviousness of the reference given Miss Knightley’s involvement, Atonement. The secret ingredient here, a soupcon  of sexual liberation, doesn’t really add much to the recipe. Indeed, the central driving force behind the plot – that female homosexuality is shameful and that the accusation of such is libellous – goes pretty much unchallenged in the text.

As a play, The Children’s Hour really didn’t work for me. We spend the first half largely in the company of the children (Lisa Backwell, Isabella Brazier-Jones, Poppy Carter, Marama Corlett, Amy Dawson, Isabel Ellison and Eve Ponsonby – all turning in solid performances) while the second half is devoted to sparring between various combinations of the adults. While this is necessary for the plot, it leads to a disjointed feeling and leaves us rather unattached to the central characters – and for a play which relies on the audience having a sense of indignation at injustice, this is a real problem.

There are also some pretty uninspiring performances here. Without wishing to put my head into the lion’s mouth which is the internet fan club of Elisabeth Moss, this is not a stellar performance from her. Despite being about the right age, she comes across as too young for the role, her bitterness at Karen’s relationship with her fiance never feels believable and I have rarely been less moved at a tragic finale in the theatre.

As for Miss Knightley, she is really surprisingly weak here. Even giving her the benefit of the doubt – after all, this is a (very very expensive) preview – on her accent which seems to be only hold up for fifteen seconds at a time, there’s little to get your teeth into with her thin (no pun intended) performance. Even her biggest scene, an Ibsen-esque effort at female emancipation in the second act, never really leaves the ground except for the contribution of Tobias Menzies. Having said that, it probably didn’t help that a couple behind me were having a prolonged negotiation with the staff about whether they would delete a photo from their phone.

Nevertheless, it is Mr Menzies as the loyal fiance Joe, rather than the two female leads, who emerges as the unexpected star of this show. His unshakable man of integrity character has the potential to be flat and mundane but he crafts a fully nuanced person out of it. He is often the most believable and compelling actor on stage.

This isn’t a bad play, and it isn’t really badly performed, but it is pretty lifeless and uninspiring in places. If you haven’t already booked, I would save your cash.