You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Children’s Hour

Sincere as the performances are, they don't generate enough stage heat to forge a sustained connection either with each other or the audience.

Karen Wright Keira Knightley
Martha Dobie Elisabeth Moss
Amelia Tilford Ellen Burstyn
Lily Mortar Carol Kane
Mary Tilford Bryony Hannah
Dr. Joseph Cardin Tobias Menzies
Agatha Nancy Crane
Rosalie Wells Amy Dawson

Her cane crashes to the floor, her body crumples and a shockwave of sympathy grips the audience as Ellen Burstyn’s Amelia is brought face-to-face with the fatal consequences of her actions. It’s the climax of Ian Rickson’s revival of “The Children’s Hour.” But Burstyn is playing one of the villains, and the emotional center should belong to the teachers played by Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss. But sincere as their performances are, they don’t generate enough stage heat to forge a sustained connection with each other or the audience.

Thematically, the 1934 drama still fascinates. Predating the more resilient “The Crucible” by two decades, Hellman’s drama about teachers wrongly accused of lesbianism similarly exposes the corrosive power of lies and, specifically, rumor. In Rickson’s hands, it also addressees the distortions created by adolescent sexuality.

In an added prelude to Hellman’s script, Rickson presents a tomboyish Mary (Bryony Hannah) alone on a couch, consumed by an illicit novel and beginning to explore her body. Although the scene is convincing in isolation, its overt expression damages the play’s texture. Giving the game away at the opening robs audiences of the pleasure of discovering the idea from Hellman’s subtext.

Isolation, as it turns out, bedevils almost all the performances. Ideally dressed by designer Mark Thompson in plain, dark colors, both Knightley and Moss are wholly convincing as dedicated, no-nonsense, slightly worn-down teachers at the school they started together. What’s less successful is their portrayal of a convincingly textured best-friend relationship.

Moss’ unadorned, plain-speaking Martha is the stronger of the two. She’s at her most vivid as she rages at Mary’s life-wrecking lie. But as the realization dawns upon her that Mary may inadvertently have revealed the truth about her own suppressed feelings, the energy of her pain remains within her body rather than radiating outward. Her self-realization should make emotional sense of something already half-expressed, but here it feels like a new plot twist because so little has been seen happening between the two of them.

Knightley is touching as Karen, who is upset to realize she has misjudged both Martha’s feelings and her understanding of her fiance, Joe (an oddly swaggering Tobias Menzies, sporting an American accent that seems to come from a gangster movie rather than the mouth of a well-educated, well-meaning local doctor).

Unlike film acting that mostly relies on reacting — intensity revealed in closeup with edits supplying energy and force — stage acting requires actors to charge up the space around and between them. Although closeups would undoubtedly reveal Knightley feeling everything, she isn’t able to project those feelings theatrically.

She is, surprisingly, not helped by the direction. “You’ll be all right?” asks Burstyn’s Amelia kindly, a line that makes no sense given that, at this point, Rickson has Knightley down on all fours at her physically lowest ebb.

That mismatch is indicative of a director surprisingly off-stride. With the actors all isolated in various degrees of extremity — Carol Kane madly flaky, several of the schoolgirls zealously over-characterized — the gears don’t mesh. That in turn exposes the plotting as increasingly contrived despite a grounded physical production with Mark Thompson’s evocative, clapboard-house designs lit with haunting pale intensity by Neil Austin.

Headline casting has ensured a near total instant SRO run (despite high ticket prices) and a likely Gotham engagement. But for this fitful vehicle to achieve dramatic momentum, pages need to be taken from Burstyn’s book. More calmly connected work like hers, and this fairly effective show could be truly affecting.

The Children's Hour

Comedy Theater, London; 787 seats; £60 top

Production: A Sonia Friedman Productions & Scott Landis, Bob Bartner/Norman Tulchin, Max Cooper, Scott M. Delman, Roy Furman, Jon B. Platt in association with Rupert Gavin presentation of a play in two acts by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Ian Rickson.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Mark Thompson; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Paul Groothuis; music, Stephen Warbeck; production stage manager, Maddie Baylis. Opened, reviewed Feb. 9, 2011. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast: Karen Wright Keira Knightley
Martha Dobie Elisabeth Moss
Amelia Tilford Ellen Burstyn
Lily Mortar Carol Kane
Mary Tilford Bryony Hannah
Dr. Joseph Cardin Tobias Menzies
Agatha Nancy Crane
Rosalie Wells Amy DawsonWith Lisa Backwell, Isabella Brazier-Jones, Poppy Carter, Marama Corlett, Isabel Ellison, Nathan Nolan, Eve Ponsonby

More Legit

  • Isabelle HuppertIsabelle Huppert Life Achievement Award,

    Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth to Appear on Stage in 'The Mother'

    Isabelle Huppert will appear opposite Chris Noth in the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “The Mother.” It marks the U.S. premiere of the show. “The Mother” was written by French playwright Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton. Huppert, an icon of European film, was Oscar-nominated for “Elle” and appears in the upcoming Focus Features [...]

  • Could Anyone Follow ‘Springsteen on Broadway’?

    Could Anyone Follow 'Springsteen on Broadway'? Here Are Five Things They'd Need (Guest Column)

    After 235-odd shows, with grosses in excess of $100 million, a Special Tony Award and a hotly anticipated Netflix special debuting Sunday, “Springsteen on Broadway” is an unprecedented Broadway blockbuster. As with any success in entertainment, the rush to replicate The Boss’ one-man show reportedly is under way, with a consortium led by Live Nation, CAA [...]

  • Clueless review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Clueless' the Musical

    How does a musical stage adaptation of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film comedy of oblivious privileged teens, “Clueless,” play in the era of female empowerment and millennial engagement? True, the principal skills of lead teen Cher Horowitz are the superficial ones of mall shopping and makeovers. But her sweet spirit and independence, plus some added P.C. relevance, [...]

  • Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary,

    Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary, 'Hugo Cabret' Musical

    Producers Tim Headington and Theresa Steele Page have unveiled Ley Line Entertainment with a Brian Wilson documentary and a “Hugo Cabret” musical in the works. Ley Line said it’s a content development, production, and financing company with projects spanning film, television, stage, and music. Headington financed and produced “The Young Victoria,” “Argo,” “Hugo,” and “World [...]

  • Daniel Radcliffe

    Listen: How Broadway Made Daniel Radcliffe a Better Actor

    Acting onstage has been a regular part of Daniel Radcliffe’s career for more than a decade — and the “Harry Potter” star says there’s a good reason for that: It’s made him better. “It gives me a lot of confidence as an actor, which is not always something that I’ve felt,” Radcliffe said on the [...]

  • The Jungle review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Jungle'

    With the rumbling of semis careening by and the sound of Middle Eastern music in the distance, “The Jungle” aims to vividly immerse audiences into the world of the real-life migrant and refugee camp of the same name. By telling the story of the Jungle’s creation in Calais, France, in 2015, and its eventual destruction [...]

  • Hillary Clinton'Network' play opening night, New

    Hillary Clinton Attends Opening of Broadway's 'Network'

    A 1976 film might not be expected to translate seamlessly to Broadway in 2018, but for the cast and creative team behind “Network,” which premiered Thursday night with Hillary Clinton in the audience, the story still feels uncomfortably close to home. “It was a satire then, and now it’s documentary realism,” said Lee Hall, who [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content