Review: The Children’s Hour

Ilana Walder-Biesanz 5 February 2014

Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour can feel dated. This is a world where lesbianism is a criminal accusation and, more problematically, is considered even by the play’s central characters to be “dirty”. The Pembroke Players’ pieced-together sets and costumes do little to create an environment where this is credible, but, if the setting is taken for granted, the actors’ powerful performances make for a moving evening of theatre.

Playing children is always a challenge for university-age actors. The schoolgirls in this production pulled it off. Mary (Georgina Letts), the manipulative and unscrupulous girl who serves as the catalyst for the play’s tragedy, was particularly believable. Mary’s selfishness and sadism are inevitably unsympathetic, but Georgina’s portrayal gave them a childish logic.

As Karen and Martha, the proprietors of the school who are the subject of Mary’s accusations, Clara Strandhoj and Joanna Clarke had commanding presence and wonderful chemistry. Clara’s put-together Karen, so outwardly calm that her rare outbursts terrified, contrasted well with Joanna’s consistently overwrought Martha. Their scenes in the play’s electrifying second half proved devastating.

Eleanor Mack and Izzy Gooder deserve mention for strong performances as the irritating Mrs. Mortar and the self-righteous Mrs. Tilford, respectively. All of the other actresses also played their roles well; in fact, the only weak performance came from James Roberts as Joseph. His constant awkwardness and the forced feel of both his lines and gestures made him seem insincere, a fatal flaw given his character’s straightforward loyalty.

The intimate setting of the Pembroke New Cellars kept the audience fully engaged and provided just the right amount of space for the action. However, a few clear missteps detracted from the production’s immersive power: the crawling pace of the initial scene, incomplete blackouts after dramatic moments, an ambiguous and too-quiet sound effect at the play’s climactic moment, inconsistency in the changed setting (currencies became British, but some place names did not), and an ending that came a few beats too soon.

Small quibbles notwithstanding, this is a show you shouldn't miss. It delivers shattering tragedy without descending into melodrama, and it left more than a few audience members in tears.