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Review Round-up: Knightley's Hour of Judgement

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Keira Knightley has continued expanding her theatre CV by taking on the role of a scandal-hit school teacher in Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children's Hour, which opened last night at the Comedy Theatre (9 February 2011, previews from 22 January).

Directed by Ian Rickson (Jerusalem), the play centres on the fall-out of a vicious whispering campaign when Karen Wright (Knightley) and Martha Dobie (Elisabeth Moss), teachers at a girls’ boarding school, are accused by a disgruntled student (Bryony Hannah) of having a lesbian relationship.

Knightley - who was Olivier-nominated for The Misanthrope last year - and Moss star opposite Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn and Carol Kane, alongside Lisa Backwell, Isabella Brazier-Jones, Poppy Carter, Marama Corlett, Nancy Crane, Amy Dawson, Isabel Ellison, Tobias Menzies, Nathan Nolan and Eve Ponsonby.

The two principals both fared well, though more than one overnight critic felt it was their younger co-star who stole the show...

Michael Coveney

"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 … 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 … And there’s great design back-up in Mark Thompson’s tall, grey, slightly indefinite setting and Neil Austin’s beautiful lighting.”

Paul Taylor

“It's a drama renowned for a New York revival in 1952 when it stood as a telling protest against McCarthy's witch hunt. But it is a play of very mixed merit artistically. Moss makes a powerful impression as Martha, starting off all wittily abrasive, arms-akimbo defiance and then succumbing to a kind of glowingly humbled selflessness, as she is forced by the lie and its consequences to confront the genuine lesbian feelings she had hitherto repressed … Knightley's performance is at its best in the difficult scene with her loyal fiancé (Tobias Menzies) when she realises that she will never be sure that he has managed to overcome all doubt and that she is not prepared to marry him on those terms … By contrast, she is wooden during the post-suicide disarray and stagey during the climactic rejection of the grandmother (well-played by Ellen Burstyn) who spread the rumour. The one truly astonishing performance, though, is that given by Bryony Hannah as the malicious pupil, Mary.”

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"This handsomely produced version does feature two top-rate performances. The first is from Bryony Hannah as the little so-and-so Mary. The second is from veteran Ellen Burstyn as Mary’s pukka grandmother, who believes the lie. Miss Knightley’s role demands raw self-evisceration. That is what a great actress would bring to it. Miss Knightley tries. By God, she tries. She turns in a performance of which many a journeywoman thesp’ would be proud. But is she a real leading lady? Is she a genuine stage star? Not quite … She keeps pushing her jaw forward, flaring her nostrils and opening her mouth. She uses this to try to portray shock and despair but it’s more dead fish on the slab. There is little limb work. I have seldom seen a less expressive pair of shoulders … Don’t let me put you off seeing the show if you can. It is a splendid evening in many ways - almost a five-star job”

Michael Billington

"There's only one question to which everyone wants the answer: can Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss cut the mustard? The short answer is that they prove as potent a combination on stage as at the box office. But, for all the excellence of their performances, and Ian Rickson's ministrations as director, nothing will persuade me that Lillian Hellman's 1934 play is any more than well-intentioned melodrama … Elisabeth Moss, captivating as Peggy in Mad Men, firmly establishes Martha as the dominant partner … In an outstanding performance, she lends Martha a dark secretiveness which goes some way to prepare us for the violent turnaround of Hellman's climax … In fact, the acting throughout is a source of pleasure … But nothing can disguise the fact this is a flawed piece.”

Libby Purves
The Times

“Well, blow me down. You think you’ve come to see stars … But you find that what you are actually watching, at first, is a diminutive, scowling unknown in a rumpled gymslip who acts the stars right off the stage. Bryony Hannah plays Mary, the knowing brat who gets revenge on two teachers running a little boarding-school, lying that they indulge in ‘sinful sexual knowledge’. The first act is hers and boy, does she punch above her weight … With a major villain like that at large, her elders wisely take the first scenes quietly: Knightley’s accent wavers a bit but she is competently schoolmarmish as Karen, gaunt yet sprightly in dowdy outfits and side-parting. Moss contrasts nicely as Martha, energetic and cheerful except when dealing with her appalling old stage-queen of an Aunt Lily, who in the hands of Carol Kane commands all the early laughs as she demonstrates to the children the correct way to clutch Cleopatra’s asp to the breast … As it moves into tragic melodrama, both principals up their game. Knightley develops some real strength and Moss explodes into a horrified confession that the worst lies are those with ‘an ounce of truth’.”


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