The Children’s Hour Review


It can’t really be denied that Keira Knightley, rather than the actual play itself, will be the reason most people hand over the dosh for the West End’s latest offering. Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, written in 1934, is relatively unknown these days, but it really shouldn’t be. Perhaps it’s that revivals are normally reserved for A-Level staples A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, but Hellman’s writing is that of overlooked brilliance, and director Ian Rickson’s adaptation is superb.

Knightley and Elisabeth Moss play the headmistresses of a small-town all-girl boarding school who are wrongly accused of an illicit lesbian affair by maligned and disgruntled pupil Mary Tilford (Bryony Hannah). Tilford concocts the lie so that her grandmother won’t send her back to boarding school after she has run away. The play strikes a similar note to 2007’s Atonement by focussing on the repercussions of a lie, and the ability of such mendacity to completely unravel the lives of those affected by it.  It’s a fascinating moral quandary, and The Children’s Hour will equally hit home for those familiar with 2008’s big screen adaptation of Doubt.

The expositional first act may drag a little as we are forced to watch small girls bicker for far too long, but the second and third acts are taut, tightly written drama. Rarely have I seen an audience so completely riveted and silenced by the performances on stage as line after line of astoundingly crafted dialogue is delivered. Playing Tilford’s grandmother is legend of the silver screen Ellen Burstyn, and as you might expect, she is nothing short of phenomenal (check out her monologue from Requiem for a Dream on YouTube and wonder out loud how cheeky wench Julia Roberts robbed Burstyn of an Oscar). Knightley and Moss both shine as the leads, Moss in particular since her character’s tortured soul gives her more to work with. Knightley doesn’t stray too far from her comfort zone in playing an uptight headmistress, but she is thoroughly convincing nonetheless. Unfortunately, Knightley’s American accent is often questionable and this can actually be quite distracting from what’s happening on stage.

The production itself is very effective. Scene changes are few and far between, and when they do occur, appropriately dressed stage hands casually move furniture around the stage in dimmed light. Such dilatory movement works well; it seems an incredibly natural way to transition between scenes. The cavernous room that the characters occupy emphasises the idea of individuals manipulated by a larger force, as well as imparting a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. Also worthy of mention is the lighting, which is deftly worked and plays an unexpectedly important role in shifting tone and mood.

The Children’s Hour is definitely worth catching in the West End. The A-list cast are fantastic, the scripting is lively and engaging, and the story thoroughly captivating. If you are a fan of either Atonement or Doubt, you’ll likely be thoroughly moved by Lillian Hellman’s under-appreciated work.



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      • Intellectual? hardly not. With diction like “subtle sophistication”, surely you deserve the title, not me 😉
        I’m all for good humor but calling an actress a “cheeky wench” in a play review (an actress who is not even part of the play) makes me question your objectivity.

  1. A joke actually. You might even have noticed my use of the word dosh too. But as an entertainment publication, a brief, playful switch of tone doesn’t seem too remiss. Ta.

  2. When it comes to Ellen Burstyn, I am a big fan, and she was actually very good (I would happily admit if she was rubbish). In fact, I was alluding to her “legend of the silver screen” status by referring to Requiem – she might be great, but a lot of people have never heard of her, unlike Keira Knightley.

    Equally, I feel the academy made a massive oversight by awarding Julia Roberts. Maybe this wasn’t the place to do it, but it’s in brackets, it’s a short sentence, and my use of cheeky wench is a joke because Julia clearly has no influence on whether she eventually wins or not.

    Also, if you’re going to criticise someone’s work wholesale, please make it slightly more polite (“What is this?”). After all, I don’t just knock these pieces out; I think about them a lot and they’re important to me. So if you’re going to be rude, maybe try and find a positive too.

    • See, that’s where you are mistaken. You are the one who devalued the quality of your work when you decided to use snarky gossip column-my phrases like “cheeky wench.” If that was your goal, then job well done. If, however, you were aiming for a reputable discourse, then you are doing yourself a disservice. i came here to read an objective review not how you feel about Julia Roberts and the Oscars. At least Burstyn already has an Oscar. What about Glenn Close? and Miranda Richardson? and Julianne Moore? and Catherine deneuve? I could go on but you get the point. Cheers!

  3. You’re right, considering I have a work experience placement at The Times next week I certainly am a poor judge of journalistic vernacular. Perhaps you might better evaluate my diction by viewing my various articles on this site? I assure you – I won’t disappoint with regards to diction.

    As for the comments above, they are crass and disrespectful. This is a student publication, each of our writers and editors hope to pursue careers in this field and a great deal of personal care, attention and effort has gone into this piece. This piece is written with flair, passion and delicacy. What a shame it was lost on you.

    Also, a little politeness might have given your critique some legitimacy – next time some positive suggestion may get you a little further.

    Happy editing!

    • Sweetheart, nothing shouts insecurity more than bragging about your credentials on the internet (and a bathroom picture with an iphone). I never questioned the integrity of Mr. Ellis’ writing. He is the one who demeans his own work when he decides to veer from the review and unnecessarily attack an actress who is not even involved with the project he is dissecting. Good luck with The Times. Cheers!

      • Hadley Middleton on

        I appreciate your certainty of my insecurities. Again, if you’d have read my work on this site you might have better casted your blind judgement’s on the psyche of a stranger.

        That picture was taken actually taken with a rubbish £30 camera, and is also five years old, but again I appreciate the attempt at a scathing dig – it’s also taken in my hallway – you not only have a keen eye for journalistic practice, but also for photography.

        Also – cultural commentators have been debating the Ellen/Julia Oscar snub ever since it happened – it is a point of great tension. The review of ‘Requiem’ in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die also raises Dom’s point about Ellen being far more deserving of the Oscar, to name only one publication.

        Thanks for the good luck wishes, I take those on board…along with your highlighting of my crippling self-doubt and agonizing lack of belief in my own ability and talent. Thank God you were here to address my pitfalls. Now do us all a favour and drop this. It’s tedious.
        I intend to. I’d appreciate it if you’d do the same.

        • Once again my point is lost in your incomprehensible stubbornness. Whether Ellen deserved the Oscar or not is inconsequential to the play being reviewed. Citizen Kane lost best picture but it is now considered to the be greatest movie ever made. Was Jennifer Hudson really better than Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza in Babel? I could care less about the Oscars because it has never really been about “the best.” Tell me why Ellen was great in the play, tell me about her gestures, what emotions her acting produced in the audience…you cheapen your own work when you extol an actress by calling another actress a “cheeky wench.” How is that a review? how elaborate can I get before you comprehend what I am trying to say? You are right, this is tedious. Cheers!

          • Your point is absurd. You defending it so fervently is a joke. Me defending it is not, because this is my work.You criticise my whole review because of an ASIDE in brackets? You act as if my whole review is attacking Julia Robets. It is not intended as a point of debate – again, it is an aside, and as impressive as your knowledge of potential oscar winners is, that’s not the point. It’s my opinion, playfully interjected. It’s fine to be completely objective, but it’s hard to convey any sort of personality without little remarks like this. And I doubt anyone in a gossip column would know much about the merits of Requiem for a Dream.

            ‘I never questioned the integrity of Mr. Ellis’ writing.’ All you have been is incredibly rude about my work. ‘How is that a review?’ My motto with criticism is try to be helpful, not harsh. You would do well to take heed of that. When you start writing reviews, I’m sure you’d love it if I came along and compared your work to some dross out of Heat.

          • *My wording of “cheeky wench” is also entirely deliberate. Never have I heard it in a gossip column. I’m simply using it as a sort of antiquated synoynm for young woman. Using a variety of diction is exactly the sort of thing I aim for in reviews because that’s what makes them more interesting. It’s just a bit more fun than writing woman. But you’ve most kindly sucked the fun out of it now.

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