Burstyn with brilliance

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I headed off to London’s West End this afternoon, after missing The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman in smaller venues at the start of its tour. Only really booking out of interest of Knightley’s stagecraft, I was surprised to see the queue outside. (I had run straight from university and made it in time to grab my ticket – eek!) I hadn’t paid too much attention before paying the £60 for a seat in the stalls, clearly, as this production boasts long-time talent Ellen Burstyn and Elisabeth Moss from the hit TV show Mad Men. which might account why, alongside Knightley, this play is so popular.

Set in the 1930s, in a small town New England, the play is centred around two women, Karen Wright (Knightley) and Martha Dobie (Moss), who run a boarding school. After pupil Mary Tilford makes false allegations against Wright and Dobie, the consequences of her actions have devastating effects for her teachers. This is a story of lies, betrayal, naivety, manipulation, innocence and gossip.

The running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with a 15 minute interval but there was a point where I wasn’t sure if  the first half was dragging because of the direction or the writing. Post-event, I can confirm it’s the writing. Hellman typically puts the crux of the action in the  second half – which is the longer of the two halves – but perhaps spends too much time setting the scene and not as eloquently as the second half. Sitting back down after the interval, time flew by and what I saw took me pleasantly by surprise.

The play’s content, being illegal in New York State then, was rather risque and on release, banned in several cities including London. And it is a surprising choice for two such bankable actors but then, for Knightley, perhaps there is comfort of trying something like this safely on your home turf. However, what was considered shocking to audience 80 years ago is not the case today. Now, it is the character reactions instead that hit me hardest and Ian Rickson manages to build an electric second half through tension and empathy.

The most notable work comes from Bryony Hannah, who plays Mary Tilford. The elfin teen whose lies wreck her teachers’ reputations and lives. I think this performance will be hit or miss for the audience. Yes Mary is supposed to be a manipulative bully, irritating and at that awkward stage of adolescence, but the stylised writhing throughout, though impressive, didn’t fit the play for me. One women next to me thought it was over-sexualised for the characters age and I am inclined to agree but that should distract from the skill of Hannah’s portrayal.

Amy Dawson plays the school victim Rosalie to perfection and though perhaps at times it is more exaggerated than necessary, it sits well with Hannah’s Mary. Carol Kane’s Lily Mortar was mostly an irritation to me, and though the character is a difficult woman, I thought this was over-played. Tobias Menzies played Doctor Joseph Cardin being stuck between a rock and a hard place to perfection and I’d like to catch more of his work.

Moss delivers a good performance through repression and subtlety with eloquent silences and Knightley, who suffers at the hands of her own fame, will be picked up on her occassionally faltering accent but overall I thought she was excellent, and I think that her stage presence is perhaps better suited to the stage than the screen.

Which brings me to a triumphant performance: Ellen Burstyn. She truly was Burstyn with brilliance as Mary’s long-suffering grandmother, Mrs Tilford. You watch her trust see-saw, get sucked in by a flood of lies, doubt Mary’s uneven responses to questioning and do the best thing by her grandchild when the lie is confirmed. I really felt for her. I thought that no matter how misguided she might have been, she was a loyal, supportive grandmother – who wouldn’t want that? Her naivety is another matter but no one wants to believe that their own flesh would lie and deceive them. Burstyn gave a top performance, believable throughout and was for me the best thing on the stage. (Sorry ladies, but your time will come!)

Hats off  and a standing ovation to the versatile and claustrophobic design work of Mark Thompson and in Neil Austin’s careful lighting.

Yet for all the hype and celebrity glamour that the cast list brings, I’m not entirely sure that the fantastic performances and great production can compensate for the script which, though a historical landmark, is flawed.

They’ve now extended the run, booking to 7th May 2011. Get your tickets here


Author: littlemissmandu

Polymath. Writer. Eurasian Daisy Steiner. Best Cheerleader '93.

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