After waiting for fifteen chilly minutes at the stage door I realised... spotting a few celebrities isn’t worth all this. The crowd were told Keira Knightley and cast would be at least another hour before coming out and greeting fans. This was the first night of the new production of The Children’s Hour, the eagerly anticipated play that has just opened at London’s Comedy Theatre.
Press night isn’t until 9th February so the cast will get a gloriously unscathed three weeks of pressure free performances, before the capital’s culture vultures swoop in to judge its merits. With very few concessions a visit to this play will certainly hit your pocket hard, I was sitting right up at the top and still forked out over £50 for two tickets. I can’t complain too much, I was pretty central and the view was acceptable, it was those in the standing places that really suffered, perhaps they were just paying for the experience of ‘being there’ because they really can’t have seen much of the play. Long gone are the days of the theatre being a comfortable luxury.
I spent much of the performance worrying about my surrounding audience members and their undercover cameras. When we entered the theatre we were bombarded by bossy security guards desperate to know one thing: ‘do you have a camera??’ Luckily I didn’t because I’m sure I would have spent the whole evening feeling guilty if I had. Towards the end of the show a camera incident did occur when a steward and couple argued persistently (all in whispers) about whether or not they would delete the Keira photo they had just taken with their iphone. A photo in which I’m sure she was barely visible considering it was taken from the back of the balcony seats.
The play immediately struck me as having many similarities with Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, both follow the vindictive accusation of a troubled young girl. The Children’s Hour is predominantly about two young women who open a girl’s boarding school in New England in the 1930’s. One of the pupils, Mary Tilford, causes chaos with the shocking charge that the two women are lovers. With the help of her gullible grandmother, the school is closed and everyone’s lives are ruined. I have since discovered that the plot is loosely based on a true case in Edinburgh in 1811.
The schoolgirls (Lisa Backwell, Isabella Brazier-Jones, Poppy Carter, Marama Corlett, Amy Dawson, Isabel Ellison and Eve Ponsonby) are sweet frolicking around at the start of the play, rolling about and giggling. In fact it is a real shame they weren’t used more, as they add another dimension to the story, and without their input in the second half I felt rather distanced to the other characters. Isabella is an old friend, I performed with her years ago in W11 Children’s Opera.
Much to my disappointment the two female leads are not as marvellous as I hoped. Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss is underwhelming as Martha - there is nothing very exciting about her performance. Keira Knightley’s role as Karen is not unlike the part she played in the film, Atonement, although rather less inspiring. Knightley’s accent is her biggest downfall, barely staying in place longer than a sentence or two. She did improve though and I found her final doom stricken speech controlled but strangely affecting. Perhaps these shortcomings are due to the fact that Knightley and Moss have very little stage experience, both succeeding instead in TV and film.
Bryony Hannah, as the hateful liar Mary is positively ghastly and scarily convincing. I previously saw her in the National’s production, ‘Earthquakes of London’ and was once again amazed by her unfalteringly commitment to the character. I also enjoyed watching Tobias Menzies as Karen's kind fiancé, Dr Joseph Cardin. His careful interaction with the rest of the cast makes him compelling to watch, and entirely believable. Award winning actress Ellen Burstyn is brilliant as the child’s grandmother, though occasionally has the tendency to overact.
Artistically I found this production spellbinding with evocative soundscapes by Stephen Warbeck and Paul Groothuis and atmospheric lighting from Neil Austin. The set is well utilized and Mark Thompson had designed it imaginatively.
I fear Knightley’s performance will not go down nearly as well as her part in the Misanthrope role a year ago, and after all the hype she's a little disappointing: having said that there are aspects of The Children’s Hour that I was impressed with. If you are just going for a glimpse of Keira I’d recommend you save the £85 for the extortionately priced ticket, spend the money instead on a nice meal and on your way home visit the Comedy Theatre stage door (at 10.15 ish) to see the star there, I can guarantee you’ll get a better view.