Review – The Children’s Hour, Comedy Theatre

Thursday 10 February 2011

Keira Knightley in (k)nightl(e)y, hot lesbian drama! Well, that’s pushing it a bit but you can understand why this revival of The Children’s Hour might be expected to attract a non-core West End audience.

Indeed, it’s strange to think that in a quasi-parallel universe there may, even now, be a queue at the Harold Comedy Theatre in which two similarly shabby but redder-blooded Whingers are even now standing in dirty macs (and anyway where did that convention come from? Surely not Columbo or Harold Wilson?), queuing shiftily to buy a ticket from the box office with their hats pushed down on their heads and their scarves pulled up around their ears, anxiously hoping not to be spotted by their wives or their colleagues.

But back in this universe, Lillian Hellman‘s daring (this was 1934 we should remember, how they must have slammed shut their well-thumbed copies of The Well of Loneliness and raced to the theatre) play doesn’t contain much in the way of lady-on-lady action – it’s a melodrama about two school-mistresses whose lives are ruined by an embittered student who accuses them (behind their backs) of “funny secrets” .

Amazingly, there are if not parallels then at least touch-points with the Whingers’ own lives. Phil remembers malicious gossip at his school about two of his teachers having “funny secrets” which became public when there was a police investigation to find out who had painted the rumour in large emulsion letters across the brickwork of one of the masters’ classrooms. 

Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play may or may not have been based on that incident as Phil likes to claim but most scholars agree it was inspired by an 1810 case in Scotland. One shouldn’t lament the play that might have been, of course (unless one is Michael Billington) but it would have been interesting if Hellman had set her play in the same period because the tale would have been daubed upon an altogether more surreal canvas: apparently one of the judges in the case, Lord Meadowbank, asserted  that sex between women was “equally imaginary with witchcraft, sorcery, or carnal copulation with the devil”, while another said it was as likely as “thunder playing the tune of God Save The King” (but while we are on the subject that story about Queen Victoria seems highly unlikely).

The Whingers do wonder if perhaps the time is ripe for a new age of lesbian denial. It could be a new trend. Americans get away with denying evolution. We shall adopt their approach. After all, lesbianism is just a theory, isn’t it?

But we digress. Again.

The point of this production is that it’s very big and very starry. Well Phil thinks so, but Andrew “doesn’t do telly” so was hazy about two of the four star names. But this is this year’s La Bête. Prices are steep. Premium seats even steeper. The gallery’s steep too and not cheap either but in the interests of transparency we must admit that we didn’t actually pay for our seats. Even the programmes are £4. We paid for one.

So who is in it? Peggy (Phil’s favourite character) from Mad Men (Phil’s favourite TV programme), Simka from Taxi, Linda Blair’s mother from The Exorcist and of course The Big Film Star.

Ellen Burstyn (Linda Blair’s mother from The Exorcist; 80 next year but doesn’t look it; left with Bryony Hannah) is particularly effective as the matriarch who accepts the word of her pathologically mendacious grand-daughter and circulates the accusations around town.

The Big Film Star (right with Elisabeth Moss) holds her ground as one of the accused teachers, sounding slightly like a bunged up Katharine Hepburn a couple of times, which isn’t a bad thing.

Elisabeth Moss (Peggy from Mad Men) is more effective as the other accused teacher Martha and brings along the ethos of Mad Men by smoking a lot. Phil liked Carol Kane (Simka from Taxi) a lot.

But none of these luminaries could quite shake the Whingers’ focus from Bryony Hannah who plays the evil Mary.

In case you’re not up to speed on this, Miss Hannah is the person that the National Theatre turns to when they need a 13 year old boy. Why they don’t cast a 13 year old boy is anyone’s guess but she turned up in both Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (left) and Earthquakes in London. This is her breakthrough role in which she finally gets to play a girl.

So is it any good? Well, it’s not bad. But it didn’t set the Whingers’ hearts on fire either. It’s a decently well made play, solid and sometimes stolid but sometimes engrossing. Act 1 has quite a few plodding moments which left the Whingers “Meh-ing” at the interval but things definitely did pick up in Act 2. It takes an awful lot of swallowing that anyone would believe a child with such a depleted picnic hamper. One thing’s for sure it wasn’t Keira who pilfered her sandwich. The melodramatic ending depends on the unfortunate coincidence of some very bad timing of almost Shakespearean proportions.

On the whole, though, we have to say that the evening was less Children’s Hour more horizontal hour here, thumb-wise, with a slight twitch upwards. Day seats available for £15.


Bags are checked for cameras as you go into the Comedy Theatre. Don’t they know what mobiles get up to these days? The Exorcist mom’s voice makes a lengthy recorded announcement before the curtain went up. Even the women next to the Whingers, who Andrew had fingered immediately as “a problem” switched off. Sorted.


16 Responses to “Review – The Children’s Hour, Comedy Theatre”

  1. maggiemobbs Says:

    Thanks for this write up. I live 5 mins away. I’ll get a day seat!

  2. annaroxelana Says:

    doubt the play is half as entertaining as this review!

  3. pb Says:

    “It takes an awful lot of swallowing that anyone would believe a child with such a depleted picnic hamper.”

    Is this some kind of euphemism?

    • butagirl Says:

      Haven’t you ever heard of the phrase “several sandwiches short of a picnic”? I presume the subsequent reference to Ms Knightly refers more to her stature than her state of mind…

  4. […] I’ve struck gold this time in my hunt for a juicy review. Theatre blog WestEndWhingers gives any professional journalist reviewer a run for their money with this entertaining – at many points hilarious – informative and just plain brilliant write up. […]

  5. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Didn’t you think the pre-show announcement about phones, cameras etc, which is probably a recording of Ellen Burstyn, sounded just like Blanche Marvin?

  6. Suzie Says:

    Did you guys see that the ATG want to charge £85 for ‘Superior Seats’, otherwise known as Stalls.

  7. maggiemobbs Says:

    So much for fifteen quid day seats, Mark Lawson R4’s Front Row in last night’s review said tickets officially up to £95, were going for ten times that much, & someone he spoke to at the theatre had paid
    £1,000 on one of those bidding websites!!! Crikes, I’ll have to get a job as an usher there……

  8. […] Westend Whingers obviously had to have their tuppence worth and started their review with an illuminating meditation on Sapphism: Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play may or may not have been based on that incident as Phil likes to […]

  9. Elston2000 Says:

    Well I saw it last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. Bryony Hannah was outstanding but everyone was good.

  10. Jay Says:

    Overrated, badly directed, sketchily acted (you know you’re in trouble when Simka from “Taxi” is the best thing on stage) and frankly all a bit bloodless. TV stars and film stars don’t always cut it on stage, and these two really didn’t.

    Keira was Keira – occasional flashes of spontaneous realism but otherwise far too much evidence of director’s notes and blocking and far too few pies. I liked what the bitchy girl reporter from the Times said about Keira “doing emotion” – “a slight crouch, as if about to wee”. Did they steal the line from the Whingers? Be careful, boys – careless quips sink ships.

    Peggy was a big, big let-down – so much so that I’m writing to the Church of Scientology and asking for my money back. How can someone whose TV performances are all about subtlety and subtext think that yelling on stage at the same tone and volume for two hours will be interesting?

    And the less said about Bryony Whatsername the better. What a dreadful performance – affected, over-choreographed and utterly incomprehensible. Was she supposed to be a lesbian? An epileptic? Why did she walk and talk like Harvey Keitel? A collection of behaviour tics collected from the Actors’ Studio and a bowl haircut does not a performance make.

    The supporting cast were very good – the foxy boyfriend particularly – and Ellen Burstyn fluffed her lines occasionally but was still great. (She’s 79, after all). But we shouldn’t be commenting on the supporting cast. We should be devastated by the ending, which was about as moving as a stuck non-moving thing. For once I allowed the nouveau riche bitch sitting behind me to light up her iPhone and check the time without me protesting – I was as keen for it to end as she was.

    Methinks that Mr Rickson, who had big successes with “The Seagull” and “Jerusalem” is more heavily reliant on his cast than once thought. With Kristen Scott Thomas and Mark Rylance, he’s fine – when called on to direct less confident actors, he flounders. But the morons in the Stalls tonight all seemed excited enough to be seeing a film star on stage, so maybe London does get the mediocre theatre it deserves.

  11. Sam Says:

    Dreadful. Dreadful. (Saw this at the National way back when with the wonderful Harriet Walter.) Thought KK was just appalling. I was searching for the screech and volume button in the first half. They were both at such a pitch that they had no where left to go. And KK is just so wooden and akward. I’ve seen better in the end of term summer play. The sad thing is I think that she’s had an impact on EM. Once EM got into the swing of things she started lowering her voice and slowing down. Anyway too many things were bad and frankly, I just don’t have the time. Thank god for Ellen Burstyn. A proper actor.

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