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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Comedy Theatre


  Elisabeth Moss and Keira Knightley/ Ph: Johan Persson

Thank God some of our moral imperatives have changed. But, of course, Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play isn’t really about sexual stigma, it’s about evil. In this, her first stage work, Hellman proved devastatingly prescient in her depiction of the paranoia that would come spewing to the surface during the ugliest days of the McCarthy era.

Parallels with The Crucible are immediately evident. As Arthur Miller would do in his 1953 text, Hellman shows us how vulnerable we all are to calumny. Miller used a 300-year-old witchcraft trial as his pretext for castigation. Hellman chose a contemporary fear of lesbianism as a camouflage for her examination of intolerance.

Set in New England, and couched in the claustrophobic hothouse atmosphere of a girls’ boarding school, this is a cautionary tale about the destructive power of small-town bigotry. A malicious child and a self-righteous old woman cry havoc and with a frightful ease manage to topple lives via their flimsy, unsubstantiated innuendo.

William Wyler filmed The Children’s Hour with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in 1961. They were supported by Fay Bainter in a memorable, Oscar-nominated performance as Amelia Tilford, the wealthy grandmother who becomes the script’s destructive catalyst. She is an honest woman who ruins several innocent lives by believing the lies that her pubescent grandchild foists on her.

In 1994, a National Theatre production starred Harriet Walter and Claire Higgins, with the young Emily Watson as the schoolgirl villain. Now we have Keira Knightley, back in the West End after last season’s Misanthrope, working with Elisabeth Moss, so impressive as Peggy in the TV series Mad Men. In addition, both Ellen Burstyn and Carol Kane are making their London debuts. Burstyn is magisterial as Mrs Tilford. Kane plays Moss’ odious aunt Lily as a loopy loose cannon.

It has been evident from the get-go that the producers must have a Broadway transfer in mind, and this is the proverbial hottest ticket in town. Long before it had even opened, the production’s glittery casting got the show extended for a full month. However, the true discovery isn’t to be found “above the title” but in a performance from the virtually unknown Bryony Hannah, who plays the spiteful and manipulative Mary. Small and fiercely energetic, she bounces around the stage with the rampaging energies of a fearsome playground bully.

She’s a spoiled brat who worms her way into her grandmother’s affections, not because she wants to be loved, but because she can’t bear the discipline that Knightley and Moss are attempting to impose on her. Hannah doesn’t miss a trick and each time she’s cornered comes up with a quickly concocted (barely) plausible alternative scenario.

She and Burstyn – thanks to Hellman – share the single most compelling moment in the play. It happens when Mary says she can only whisper her revelation to her grandmother. As poison is dripped into her ear Burstyn freezes into a basilisk. This really is Iago and Othello, a spine-chilling split second from which the lives of all these characters will never recover.

Both Knightley and Moss know how to use the stillness that can be so riveting in a camera’s close-ups. Preternaturally thin, Knightley is a hare frozen in the glare of oncoming headlights. Moss is a pugnacious terrier willing to take on all comers, but ultimately petrified by her own inner demons.

What is most unnerving about these performances is the way in which we can so easily recognize what the characters do not see for themselves. Despite the fact that nothing has ever “happened,” we know that these friends are really more than friends. Planting this thought in our heads allows Hel


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