Review: The Children’s Hour

Jamie Bisping 19 October 2018


Lillian Hellman’s 1934 drama, ‘The Children’s Hour’ follows the story of two teachers, Karen Wright (Saskia West) and Martha Dobie (Jessica Murdoch), that are falsely accused of having a lesbian affair, and the subsequent social, familial and psychological demise that haunts both women.

There is no time or era in which such a story should not be told. In The Guardian’s review of Ian Rickson’s 2011 production, Billington writes, “nothing will persuade me that Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play is any more than well-intentioned melodrama”. I disagree. Katie Woods’ production indeed was “well-intentioned” but it didn’t feel melodramatic. Indeed, the script perhaps lends itself to criticism with how easily the antagonist Mary (Sophie Atherton) is believed, but with Wood’s direction a narrative was created that seemed scarily relevant today; it transcended the time in which it was set, even if this was not the intention. To have a nearly all-female cast and an LGBT narrative is rare for an ADC main show, and it is exactly what was needed. It shed light onto a story that may now seem outdated to some people, but is nonetheless objectively important. To remind an audience of this specific example of prejudice serves an important purpose, and for this reason Woods must be commended.

The staging, three platforms which felt appropriate no matter the scene’s location, was visually effective. It may perhaps have been more effectively used if some of the dramatic action took place on different levels. This was evident as when the platforms were utilised, it had an intense impact, such as during the movement sequences; these were well executed and used at appropriate points in the narrative, creating moments of genuine poignancy, for which credit is due to Milo Callaghan as Movement and Assistant Director. An example of the set being effectively used is the moment where Karen and Martha are placed in the middle platform facing an angry mob below them, whilst the silhouette of Amelia Tilford (Kim Alexander) haunts them from above, mirroring the hierarchal structures that are seen throughout the play; the ability of one voice to corrupt hundreds more.

The show was visually captivating; segues between natural and stylised lighting (Deasil Waltho) and appropriate musical compositions (Geraint Owen) were used to great effect. It is hard to successfully move between stylised sequences of unnatural movement and moments of intense naturalism, but Woods and her team pulled this off well. It never felt jilted and the transitions between physical theatre sequences and following scenes of naturalism were well choreographed leading to smooth and seamless transitions, allowing the former to assist the latter.

However, it is the performances of the cast which really made the show the spectacle that it proved itself to be. The entire ensemble should be commended, with every cast member becoming their own individual character no matter how big or small the part. My problem with this, however, was that at times it became a little distracting as some actors tried to push forward their individual persona and presence, moving across the stage without purpose, which I imagine was to create child-like energy but sometimes it felt forced and unnecessary.  From the supporting cast standouts included Amaya Holman as Agatha, who brought well-needed comic relief, Kim Alexander as Amelia Tilford, who said each line with a calm eloquence, an understated, quiet performance required in a play involving many moments of heightened emotion, and finally Eleanor Lind Booton, who’s every word and every movement felt meticulously designed to create a character who was both ridiculous and captivatingly moving.

But much of success of the play relied on the two central actors, and was indeed a success. The performances Saskia West and Jessica Murdoch were astonishing. The chemistry they created from the moment we first saw them interact foreshadowed Martha’s later confession without giving it away. It is in the second act where both women shine, and it was without a doubt worth the wait. The last scene felt like an acting master-class. Murdoch so perfectly handled Martha’s breakdown, and the skill in which she used her voice and physicality was of professional standard; so moving in her mutters, heart wrenching in her cries, capturing Martha’s guilt and emotional pain. It was perfectly judged and unbelievably moving – Woods must also be recognised for how sensitively she dealt with the material. Likewise, West’s final moments carried through to the end Martha’s emotional turmoil but with a silent grief, performed so delicately that it never felt contrived or self-indulgent, but rather left the play’s tone on one that was shocking in its tragedy, beautiful in it subtly.

On the whole, the play’s first act was perhaps slow, but this is a comment on the script not the production, and I find it hard to believe that if there was not the slow build, the tragedy of the second act would not have had the effect it had. ‘The Children’s Hours’ showcased female talent and shone a light on an important narrative, provoking me to wonder why there aren’t more queer and female narratives on the ADC stage.