The stage is awash with talent in The Children’s Hour. Lillian Hellman’s tale of lies, love and betrayal is set against the unforgiving backdrop of New England in the 1930s, and Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss (of Mad Men fame) breathe life into this fraught production.
They play two schoolmistresses whose lives are torn apart when a troublesome teen in their charge spreads a rumour that they are having illicit relations. Their world soon crumbles around them as they become embroiled in a legal battle, and are forced to watch the school they have painstakingly built fall to its knees.
Throughout the damage and destruction that this mistruth creates, culprit Mary remains the only character to emerge entirely unscathed, and it is Bryony Hannah’s portrayal of the misguided youth that truly steals the show. Her manipulation, deceit and general loathsomeness are truly astonishing.
It is not director Ian Rickson’s revival that slows the performance, but rather the script itself. This subtlety was of course vital being written at a time when homosexuality could not be mentioned onstage in New York at all, but it is perhaps too muted for a modern audience. The leads do not come into their own until the second act, by which point emotions run so high that they verge on the implausibly melodramatic.
The show is well acted for the most part, but Hellman’s own confusion over what message she is trying to convey blurs what could easily be a slick storyline. The uneasy flitting between themes of false accusations and moral culpability underwhelm the audience, as does the bland staging. There are certainly powerful moments throughout, but a tale of misjudged lesbian lust would perhaps have more potency when written outside of the social constraints of early modern America.