The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman has travelled well. Based on a true story at an elite all girls’ boarding school in Edinburgh over two hundred years ago, Hellman’s first stage production of the play in 1936 both shocked and delighted – it was banned in several countries due to the salacious subject material. For some the mere mention of homosexuality was too much to endure – for others, this play about the ‘corrosiveness of false accusation and the power of buried sexual passion,’ struck a chord.
Fast forward eighty years and the play is a seminal text adapted many times into films and an influence on any number of stories about the dangerous power of adolescent girls and the insidious impact of gossip. Think The Crucible, Heavenly Creatures, Parade and even Oleanna. In this production under Chris Davis there is much to like, and in spite of the shortened version of the story it still packs a punch. The ending still produced some tears from the audience at a packed out Rosemary Branch.
Martha Dobie (Elizabeth Stevens) and Karen Wright (Emily McDonald) play the innocent teachers who unintentionally infuriate the vicious and vengeful Mary Tilford (Kimberly Marren). Both Stevens and McDonald are strong and convincing in their roles, conveying an easy friendship pushed to breaking point – McDonald portrays a common sense innocence that’s very likable and there’s a particularly nice subtlety to Stevens performance.
Marren plays Mary as a delightful cocktail of indignation, entitlement and a love of manipulation. Spoiled, spiteful and often winging it with her lies, at times she seems delighted and surprised by her powers. It’s a compelling stand out performance that leaves breathing space to wonder whether Mary is the real culprit in this story. Mary’s sidekick Rosalie Wells (Isabella Price) is furiously conflicted and trapped by her own lies and both Peggy (Phoebe Chan) and Evelyn (Minnie Walker) capture the heady spirit of teenage girls in this closed in world.
You have to feel for dutiful Joseph (Kier Mills) who stands by his woman/women and tries earnestly to do the right thing, but doesn’t quite have the guts to stand up to a powerful Amelia Tilford (Julia Coleman). He’s our hope for common sense in this play and he stumbles – which I am sure is an important part of Hellman’s message. But the real villain of the piece for me (over Mary and her lies) is Lily Mortar (Diana Pauline) played as joyfully narcissistic and self-centred, it’s Lily’s decision that contributes to the final fateful moments of the play.
With minimal set and creative use of entrances and exits this play works really well in this small space. We feel the claustrophobic sense of the school and how caged Martha and Karen feel in their small community.
Director Chris Davis keeps the pace up so the one hour twenty minutes rolls on satisfying, gathering momentum as the play goes on – much like the gossip and the women’s predicament – until the inevitable ending that Mary Tilford could never have predicted.
Of course most of the subject matter is no longer shocking but the play bears repeating – it is after all a reminder of the power of a good lie. This is a play about what happens when hysteria is allowed to run free and good people do nothing.
Review by Roz Wyllie
The Children’s Hour
by Lillian Hellman
Directed by Chris Davis
Based on an actual incident in nineteenth century Scotland, The Children’s Hour concerns the fallout of a malicious teenager who accuses her two teachers of being lesbians. The play explores the corrosiveness of false accusation and the power of buried sexual passion that permeates throughout. A brilliant piece of storytelling, Lillian Hellman’s hugely successful play was a controversial hit when it first premiered on Broadway in 1934 and was initially banned in London. The dark and unsettling undertones of the text are as relevant today as ever, where sex and lies remain a prevailing force in our everyday culture.
29th March – 2nd April 2016