I left The Children’s Hour feeling frustrated. I loved this play. In particular, I thought that Bryony Hannah was outstanding in her very central role. So I was surprised that she wasn’t singled out when the actors took their bows at the end. Instead, she took her bow alongside the majority of the cast and shared the general applause. After a pause, Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss came out last, at which point the cheers and applause got louder, with some people even giving them a standing ovation. Now, Keira and Elisabeth are very good in this. And they definitely have leading roles. But in no way are they the stars of the show. Without a doubt, Bryony’s schoolgirl character, Mary, is the main protagonist of the play. And Bryony plays her superbly. So my sensitive soul found the audience response a bit insulting to the other actors, as it was obvious that it was Keira who was being overly applauded, simply for being Keira. After everyone went off stage I sat, hands poised, waiting for them to return for a round of individual bows and for my opportunity to give Bryony the recognition that she deserved. Only, they didn’t come back. I felt cheated. And I felt a little bit gutted for Bryony.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Keira Knightley. I’ve never seen any Pirates of the Caribbean so I can’t judge her on those. But last year I saw her in The Misanthrope – the Martin Crimp update of Molière’s play – where she mastered the tricky dialogue beautifully and really brought her character to life. It was a wonderful, meaty role and she played it brilliantly. There, she was the star of the show, even amongst the other great performers. Here, however, she has a very different type of role, with the real meat coming from the other characters. It’s not a criticism, just a fact.
The Children’s Hour is the tale of Karen (Keira) and Martha (Elisabeth), two young teachers who’ve been friends since childhood. We’re introduced to them at the girls school that they’ve set up in a big old house that they spent years saving for and then renovating. Living off them is Martha’s ditzy lush of an aunt, Mrs Lily Mortar (played by Carol Kane), whose delusions of acting grandeur from bygone days treading the boards forms the basis of drama lessons for the girls. Karen is engaged to the dashing Dr Joseph Cardin (played by Tobias Menzies), whose little cousin, Mary, is one of the pupils.
From the outset, we see how mischievous the schoolgirls are, messing around as children do. But as the play progresses, Mary stands out head and shoulders above the rest as a nasty, evil, bullying troublemaker. What unfolds is a heartbreaking story, instigated by Mary and involving not only the teachers, but also the Doctor and Mary’s grandmother (in a great performance by Ellen Burtsyn).
Watching The Children’s Hour made me think about the art of storytelling. Lillian Hellman, the writer, has provided a great narrative. A combination of comedy and tragedy which is brilliantly translated for the stage by the actors, with Bryony Hannah leading the charge. It was gripping and provocative throughout. At times I wanted to shout out from the audience, to right the wrongs that were happening in front of me. Or better still, run up on stage and give Mary a good shake to make her stop.
A rollercoaster of emotions, I’ll even admit to shedding a few little tears at one point. And I’ve since learnt that it is, very sadly, based on a true story, which makes me want to shed a few more.
All of the acting was great, with Ellen Burtsyn and Elizabeth Moss also deserving a specific mention. But without a doubt, the star of the show was Bryony Hannah. I hadn’t heard of her before but I hope to see her in many more things in the future.
Get a ticket while you can. It’s on at the Comedy Theatre and booking until 7th May. I promise, you won’t regret it. But remember, they only take one bow, so be sure to give Hannah Bryony a rapturous applause when you get the chance.