Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss make a fine pairing in The Children's Hour at the Comedy Theatre; but you can't help feeling their agents have stitched them up, scoring them such an uneven, plodding play.
Lillian Hellman's 1934 drama sees the lives of two New England teachers ruined when a malicious pupil starts a false rumour that they're lesbian lovers. Director Ian Rickson works hard with what he's got, introducing a wordless prelude to hint at the simmering sapphism among the school girls; but with slow, clunky scene changes and an script lacking in any subtlety, it's hard to see this play as anything more than a mediocre melodrama.
The long, slow set-up, leading to the moment Mary tells her grandmother "the lie" barely features Knightley and Moss at all; you'd be forgiven for worrying you're not getting much Keira for your cash. Instead, Bryony Hannah gives a startling performance as a self-dramatising spoilt brat, fainting on cue for the teachers, while wielding powerful bullying skills with her classmates. Anyone who's seen a teenager throw themselves around a bus seat, seemingly fighting at the very nature of adolescence, can't help but recognise the destructive feelings spilling from this nasty little child.
A shame then, that her doting Grandmother (played ever. so. slowly. by Ellen Burstyn) instantly believes her lie, putting a slow hand to her cheek (that's "shock", you see) then phoning around to say "It's something very shocking, I'm afraid," and pass the rumour on.
Thankfully, things speed up after the interval, and Keira and Peggy Elisabeth get a lot more to do. Moss's performance as Martha is dark with suppressed emotion, hinting at the tragedy to come; when she learns her summer holiday will be with both Karen (Knightley) and her new husband Joe, her entire body goes rigid, and she's reduced to silence.
Knightley is also convincing as Karen, opening with a show of brittle charisma which crumbles dramatically when the impact the rumours have had on her relationship with her husband-to-be are made clear. "Every word has a new meaning now," she realises, in a poignant scene between her and Joe (nicely played by Tobias Menzies in a tache).
Unfortunately, this is followed by more clunky dialogue ("I've ruined your life!" [Pause] "And I've ruined my own.") and Knightley goes wooden after the ridiculous "bad timing" plotting takes a turn for the worse.
Fans of the leading ladies are sure to enjoy the second half; we couldn’t help wishing their talents had been tested on something less dated, and rather better written.
The Children's Hour plays at the Comedy Theatre until 30 April. Visit www.childrenshourtheplay.com for more information. Tickets cost between £15 and £60. An allocation of top price stalls seats is available from the box office at 10.30 on the day of the performance at £15 each.
Photos by Johan Persson