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Review: The Children’s Hour

A stunning display of female talent

This production of The Children’s Hour, a 1934 American play by Lillian Hellman, has been transposed to 1930s rural England. It follows the story of two headmistresses of girls’ boarding school, Martha (Jessica Murdoch) and Karen (Saskia West), who are falsely accused of having a lesbian affair by a particularly antagonistic student, Mary (Sophie Atherton).

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Photo credit: Helena Fox

It is clear that a lot of care went into every component of this production. The set design allows for dynamic use of the stage by playing with height and shadows as well as depth. The music begins light-hearted and becomes progressively more sombre with each act. It is paired with movement-based scenes that director Katie Woods chose to add between the existing ones to fill in gaps in the narrative.

The stories told through these scenes are engaging and add a new layer to the play – assistant / movement director Milo Callaghan deserves great applause for them. For example, the sequence depicting Mary’s flight from the school has the other actors morph from shadows in the night, to passengers crowding around her on a bus, to indifferent bystanders as she realises she is lost. I appreciated that this scene allowed Atherton to show us a different side of Mary: that of a young girl who, once outside the small pond of her school, is uncertain and afraid.

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Photo credit: Helena Fox

This brings me to the acting. The supporting cast of schoolgirls, as well as the maid Agatha (Amaya Holman) and Mary’s grandmother Mrs. Tilford (Kim Alexander), all embody their roles perfectly. Atherton is undoubtedly a highlight: her portrayal of the insolent, petulant, manipulative Mary is so fun to watch. Her sudden swings from hysterical tantrum to sweet-tongued flattery to violent bullying, paired with wonderfully expressive body language, easily evoke exasperation.

Eleanor Lind Booton is hilarious as Martha’s aunt with delusions of acting grandeur, but struggles with the more tragic tone of the end of the play, while Jamie Sayers’ portrayal of the bland token male character Joe, Karen’s fiancé, is nevertheless believable and has a few breakout moments.

Finally, the two leads. West and Murdoch play off each other in a way that at times feels intimate, at other times a little awkward. West plays Karen’s tragic arc well, but it is Murdoch who drew the most emotion from me. The small hints at her true feelings throughout the play, her palpable pain at seeing Karen and Joe together, and her cry of “We don’t leave each other” followed by “I love you” are heart-wrenching.

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Photo credit: Helena Fox

Woods wants the audience to “recognise the ongoing struggle that certain LGBT individuals face in the 21st century with themselves, separately to the surrounding world”. Coming to terms with one’s sexuality is certainly a very personal and fraught journey, but I don’t think it can ever be entirely divorced from the outside world; some reflection of that in the play’s climax could have made for a tonally different, more powerful ending. I would also have liked to see the individualised focus of the play result in some form of shift in even just one of the characters: a realisation of the devastation that homophobia – not rumours or false accusations – leaves in its wake, or even a simple acknowledgement that being gay is ok.

Nevertheless, The Children’s Hour is an achievement for director Katie Woods. A stunning display of Cambridge theatre’s female talent, this production shows that Hellman’s name indeed deserves to stand alongside the likes of Tennessee Williams. Though not quite as emotional as I had hoped considering the subject matter, it is nevertheless an excellent production of a too-little-known play.

4/5 stars.

The Children’s Hour is on at the ADC until Saturday, 20th October. Tickets are £9-£14.