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.
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.