Last year Keira Knightley was the best thing in The Misanthrope; granted this is a bit like saying "the shiniest piece of undigested corn in a turd" but it was basically meant as a compliment. This year she returns to the same theatre for Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, also starring Elisabeth Moss. It's being promoted with a photo in which Moss looks mentally challenged and Knightley looks like Darth Maul, sadly it's not the story of a plucky underdog taking on the powers of the Sith but a 1934 play about lies, paranoia and a witchhunt as two teachers at a private girls' school are falsely accused of being practising lesbitarians. There's more stars in the cast as Ellen Burstyn plays the grandmother of the girl who makes the accusation, although I was perhaps most excited about Carol Kane (especially after Scrooged was repeated last Christmas) as Martha's (Moss) aunt, whose self-absorption has disastrous consequences.
The play itself is quite oddly structured, with different characters taking over the proceedings for lengthy periods; so after an appearance at the beginning the leads are absent from half of the first act and the start of the second, when Burstyn as Mrs Tilford and Bryony Hannah as Mary, the child who starts the lie, hold the stage. Ian Rickson's production isn't hugely pacy, and while at times this means it's slow and menacing (helped by Stephen Warbeck's oppressive music) at others it's just slow. Frankly it's hard to buy that, however doting a grandmother she is, Mrs Tilford would believe Mary's lies given how frequently and desperately she changes her story, but eventually hers is the character who seems to have the most resonance today, the sort of judgemental person who's ready to believe the worst of people and spread it regardless of the consequences. The cast also includes Tobias Menzies and Lisa Backwell (Panda from Skins) and the set by Mark Thompson adds to an intense mood but while it's ably done with some striking performances, overall it's OK rather than stunning (an opinion shared by Richard, who was my theatre companion for this.)
The Children's Hour by Lillian Hellman is booking until the 7th of May at the Comedy Theatre.