The two teachers running the private school in New England in Lillian Hellman’s 1934 stage debut, The Children's Hour – an astonishing first play by any standards – are perfectly cast and perfectly played.
Yes, folks, Keira Knightley really does deliver as Karen Wright, from the minute she establishes a strong-willed rather petty vein in punishing the habitual liar, Mary Tilford, who proves to be her nemesis by spreading rumours of lesbianism in the staff room.
Keira’s acquired added stage confidence, though not many extra pounds, since The Misanthrope, and is totally believable as a charismatic teacher and someone with whom her teaching partner, Martha Dobie, might fall just a little bit in love.
The whispering campaign proves a disaster in ways that still shake you, even if you know the marvellous William Wyler movie, or indeed saw the fine National Theatre 1994 version – the first on a British stage - directed by Howard Davies with Clare Higgins and Harriet Walter.
Martha is superbly played, too, by Elisabeth Moss, as a soul of luminous intensity, making the jolting speeches of the great third act seem entirely natural. And Ian Rickson’s lucid, poetic production is further enhanced in the presence of the great Ellen Burstyn as the plutocratic grandmother who sides with Mary in a successful campaign of slander.
This remains a gruesomely appropriate play on two counts: as a dissection of a whispering campaign twenty years in advance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, let alone the insidious WikiLeaks brouhaha; and as a prescient commentary on how suburban puritanism and its sidekick, gloating prurience, stick their big noses into relationships between teachers and charges, especially today.
I’m only surprised that Bryony Hannah as Mary Tilford is so annoyingly self-conscious and middle-aged (Emily Watson was fantastic and ferocious, without being a pain, at the National) and that Carol Kane as the voice-coaching Lily Marton is more archly enunciated than a gang of Maggie Smiths at a Miss Jean Brodie carnival audition.
Tobias Menzies, no dark and handsome hunk like James Garner in the movie, is perfectly acceptable as Karen’s nearly-husband, and Nancy Crane chips in tellingly in the school corridor.
Rickson makes much of the opening slow-to-get-going classroom scene, with multiple hints of incipient sexy Sapphism, and flashing thigh to boot, among the giggling, maroon-uniformed girls. And there’s great design back-up in Mark Thompson’s tall, grey, slightly indefinite setting and Neil Austin’s beautiful lighting.