Simply phenomenal theatre. Drop everything – play truant, pull a sickie, whatever it takes – but make sure that you get to The Children’s Hour before the run ends early next month.
I have been in two minds about the growing phenomenon of celebrity-led theatre in the West End. Whilst it fills out theatres with star-spotters and causes irritating hikes in ticket prices that don’t necessarily reflect the quality of the production, I tend to err on the side of celebration. Anything that gets more people who don’t ordinarily go to the theatre down those aisles and into the audience is generally a bonus in my book – there is little doubt that it brings new patrons to live theatre and thus helps to keep the artform thriving in these troubled financial times.
It probably helps that the celeb lead plays that I have seen of late have been of truly stellar quality. The last such drama was All My Sons at the Apollo, led by Zoe Wanamaker and David Suchet. That was a critical and crowd-pleasing barnstormer, but I’d like to propose an argument that I didn’t forsee. Elizabeth Moss and Keira Knightly have topped it.
The Children’s Hour is simply but beautifully staged. The costumes are straightforward but period-perfect – elegant 1930s understatement in a style reminiscent of Moss’s other day job, the wonderful Mad Men. Lillian Hellman’s script doesn’t waste a word and manages to intersperse genuine laughs with a harrowing examination of injustice, prejudice, entitlement, despair, sexuality and libel. It is delivered by a fantastic cast, within which the supporting roles played by Bryony Hannah, Tobias Menzies and Ellen Burstyn glow as brightly as those of the famous leads.
Bryony Hannah (below, centre) in particular is astonishing. Her unfaltering portrayal of the odious pupil Mary is remarkably involving. This performance can’t help but bring back memories of school bullies and how completely unconquerable they seemed from the limited perspective of a child under their power. A fantastic physical and emotional performance marks this actress out as one to watch.
Moss has always been on the ‘right’ end of the critical spectrum. Anyone who can start their career in the public eye via regular roles in The West Wing and Mad Men couldn’t deny that they have been blessed to be associated with projects of such quality. Knightly is the more famous of the two, but her mixed bag of film roles has historically made her the recipient of similarly mixed reviews from a less enraptured crowd of commentators. Both young women have now been on our screens for over ten years, but this play must prove beyond doubt that they have graduated to a point in their careers where they must be taken seriously as stage professionals. They are both on hair-raising and furious form in roles that stretch and exploit their considerable talents.
Yet this play is far more than a serious vehicle for celebrity talent. Aching with poignance, it is a piece of social history that manages to demonstrate – in the case of the power of rumour and scandal to unfairly destroy reputations, livelihoods and individuals in an instant – just how little the world has progressed in the nearly 80 years since its premiere.
This is a fantastic example of how theatre should be done. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to experience it for yourself.
The Children’s Hour is at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, until Saturday May 7th. Tickets available at the box office: 0844 871 7622. A limited supply of same-day tickets are released at 10am daily for £15 at the Comedy Theatre itself. I arrived bang on 10 o’clock and managed to get seats in a box. It was the best £15 I’ve spent in years. Enjoy.