“People will not accept a serious play on the road,” complains the actress aunt of schoolteacher Martha Dobie in The Children’s Hour. “It’s musicals, musicals, musicals.”
Elisabeth Moss (Martha Dobie) and Keira Knightley (Karen Wright) in The Children's Hour at the Comedy Theatre Photo: Johan Persson
Playwright Lillian Hellman wrote those words in 1934, but she could equally be speaking, for the most part, about the commercial West End today. So it is to be applauded that this classic serious play featuring a large company of 15 actors, unseen since a National Theatre production in 1994 gave the play its belated first public performances in London, has finally made it to the West End.
On the other hand, it comes at a high price. ‘Regular’ top price seats are a new high for a play of £60, fast approaching that of a musical, while ‘premium’ seats are going for £85. And Elisabeth Moss, playing Dobie, suggests to her aunt one reason why: “No wonder the theatre is so expensive if they pay you so much.”
I have no idea what Moss and Keira Knightley, returning to the same London stage that she made her theatrical debut on in 2009 to star as fellow teacher Karen Wright, are being paid to headline in this production, but their presence is certainly helping to turn this into the kind of event theatre that its producers hope will justify the outlay demanded from audiences to see it.
And suspicious though one may be of such motivations, Ian Rickson’s meticulous and moving production does ultimately pass that financial as well as dramatic test. It is a slow-burner of a play in which schoolgirl lies set off an inexorable chain of events, as in The Crucible, that have dark consequences.
As the situation becomes charged up with feeling and a gathering power, the play catches fire in a series of blazing second act scenes that burn with intensity, as if it were one of Ibsen’s dramas about moral consequences, in which Knightley’s haunted Karen Wright has devastating encounters with her fiance (a superb Tobias Menzies) and the magnificent Ellen Burstyn as Mrs Tilford, the grandmother whose acceptance of her grandchild’s lies sets the train in motion. Knightley, too, is a revelation, going to a far darker, more intense place than she was called to in her debut play The Misanthrope.
Directed with an unsparing, unflinching wash of feeling, beautifully designed by Mark Thompson and with lighting, music and sound (respectively by Neil Austin, Stephen Warbeck and Paul Groothuis) that all make their own seamless atmospheric interventions, this is commercial theatre not just at its most pricey but also best.