Review: The Children’s Hour is a Very Bad Play

Internet users of a certain age will remember a Powerpoint presentation that went around about a dozen years ago called something like “The Doubletree is a Very Bad Hotel.”

It was funny because it stated, without rancor, and with the faux clear-eyed insouciance (and with that phrase, I’m also now picturing Reese Witherspoon in “Election”) of a slide headline in Times Roman italic, that the facts were simple, and they were this: Your hotel is a very bad hotel.

I am here to tell you that The Children’s Hour, currently playing at the Comedy Theatre and starring Keira Knightly, Elisabeth Moss, Ellen Burstyn, and Carol Kane, is a very bad play.

Before anything else happens: If you hold tickets to this play, I urge you to get rid of them right now, before you read any further.  (I was actually angry enough at the end of the show, at the sheer waste of money and time that had gone into producing it, and that would continue to go into keeping it up through the end of its run, to think through what it would take to mount a social media campaign to get the show to close early, and have all the money and the stars’ time donated to charity, or something.  More on that later.)

You can get rid of your tickets one of two ways:

1) Sell them on:  There are tickets up on eBay, Gumtree, Craigslist; you may have competition.  There’s also this site I just found which appears to be like StubHub but for live shows, run by Ticketmaster:

2) You could try returning them to the theatre for a refund.  The number is 0844 871 7627.  I like this method because it costs the theatre revenue (since they are complicit in this), but on the other hand, they may not take them back if they’re not sure they can sell them on, which causes them only minor pain.  Still, better someone else sitting through this than you.

Now, if you’re still reading at this point and you still think you might go to the play, I am going to tell you the plot and reveal the ending.  Normally I would never do this, but this is how badly I want you to not go to this play.

In Internet terms what I am about to write is called a SPOILER, for those of you who quickly scan reviews for the word SPOILER before reading them (not a bad habit really).

So, the plot of the play is that Keira and Elizabeth are two schoolteachers at a girls’ school in the 1920s or so in the American Northeast. One of their students is hyperactive and malevolent – it’s never explained why.  This student makes up a lie that she’s seen the teachers kissing.  The teachers’ lives fall apart and the point is supposed to be that it’s terrible to tell a lie, and also terrible how easily the adults believe it.  Atonement meets The Crucible, etc.  Note that at this point it is already a bad play: there is not a single insightful line, the action is too far from how normal humans behave for it to serve as any kind of parable or mirror to society.  This is also a production where someone says “Damn you” in the second act, and everyone looks incredibly shocked, and then holds it for a beat, because that’s to remind us it’s the 1920s.

Then: Twenty minutes from the end of the play, Elizabeth suddenly decides she is a lesbian after all, she just never realized it before!  And then: she goes into the other room and shoots herself!  With a gun that who knows where it came from, or why it was in the school.  And then, the play goes on for another twenty minutes, as several other characters come in one by one and each get their own “what have I done, O Forgive Me” moment.

My somewhere-between-annoyance-and-anger here is just that the theatre was PACKED.  With hundreds of people who had paid as much as £85 per ticket ($136 for you American readers).   Just such a waste of money.  And time: three hours all of us will never get back.  We could have raised a barn or painted a school or something.

So the badness of it calls to mind two trains of thought:

1) Who is to blame and how can they be held to account?

2) How can I ensure this never happens to me or any of the broader CNC Culture Factory Community™ again?

You would think they’d be separate questions, but here’s where it gets tricky: they’re not. It’s a conspiracy and we need to learn to read the tea leaves.

The Playwright’s name is Lillian Hellman, but that does you no good, since she wrote in the 30s and is not likely poised for a comeback.  Interestingly from the play’s point of view, she is was the target of the somewhat famous insult/assessment “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” (She filed a libel suit against the person who said it, and substantially lost, since she was actually a pretty prodigious liar.)

The Director is no slouch: Ian Rickson, Artistic Director of the Royal Court for ten years (though this was from 1996-2006, so, not its most recent triumphant run) and Director of Jerusalem (though that was his seventh play by Jez Butterworth, and directing it may have largely consisted of staying out of Mark Rylance’s way).  Anyway, no big clue there.

The Producers are Sonia Friedman and Scott Landis.  Sonia Friedman seems beyond reproach; her website shows that she has produced dozens and dozens of great shows – Arcadia, View from the Bridge.   She seems to have a knack of getting things from London to NY but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

Scott Landis it’s less easy to be sure about.  He was hanging around shows as a “Production Photographer” until 2006 when he suddenly started becoming a “Producer”…sounds like a luvvie with money.  He then started dating the director of one of his shows, who happens to be the sister of he director Rob Marshall (Chicago).  Strangely this fact doesn’t make it into their Vows column. The four shows he’s produced have not been big winners; one called “Broadway Bound” was cancelled even before it made it to, yep.  He was also attached to a Harry Connick, Jr. vehicle which never got off the ground beacuse Connick left the production due to irreconcilable differences.

(I feel bad laying into the guy here, but I’m just looking for the catalyst for this waste of time and money, and out of everyone, he seems among the most suspect.)  So, keep an eye on Scott Landis, is all I’m saying.  If he produces something fantastic I’ll come back and amend this post.

The Theatre: It looks like the Comedy Theatre will put on anything, especially if there’s a chance it will travel to New York.  I’ve never seen a great show at the Comedy, but they are good at marketing.  Previous not-good shows included Boeing, Boeing (fine, but not the laugh riot it was pitched as – it did transfer to NY) and La Bete (which, even with Mark Rylance, was poorly reviewed in London, but also transferred to Broadway and got decent reviews from Rylance doing his thing and it being new in NY).  A year ago, we saw Keira in her West End debut at The Comedy in The Misanthrope, which was also not very good, but not to an angry-making extent.  That one didn’t get out of London.

So we may be learning that The Comedy is another consistent culprit in this: Putting on bad plays, with big names, and happy to take your money even though they know the shows they put on may not be any good, because they know they have a crack marketing team and a path to NY if they can get a few good quotes.

Stepping back a bit: Aside from the producers and the theatre, whose commercial motive is more understandable, why do actors and a director who are already artistically and financially successful decide to produce a very bad play?  My guess is twofold, and based a bit uncharitably on ego, but also in the assumption that they don’t want to willfully inflict a bad play on people just for the sake of it.  1) Maybe stars want to do something that nobody has done before, so they can’t be compared to a previous performance.  2) Maybe directors want to unearth a gem and coax a wonderful show out of a script which nobody else has had the vision to see the potential of before.

This is fine for them, but it’s not our job as the theatergoing public to be tapped as guinea pigs in this experimenting.   I have been on the other side of this before: I spent some money a couple years ago becoming a 1% producer on a Broadway production of a secondary O’Neill called Desire Under the Elms.  I didn’t know what I was doing, and lost it all – but at least as an investor I had a chance of some upside.  As an audience member in this situation, it’s all downside.  There is a reason these are secondary plays.

Dear Directors: If you want to discover something great, put on a play by some rising star who’s writing today, don’t dig up something 80 years old that has been considered bad for 79 years and all of a sudden think you’ve discovered how to make it great.  Maybe you have, but the odds are you haven’t, and you’ll waste a lot of other people’s money and time discovering you’re wrong.  And that’s money that could have made a difference for someone who was still writing today.

So: It’s a cynical show designed to make some money by putting female stars into a salacious-sounding play.   That’s what producers do, they put together commercial propositions.  Fine.

Last set of culprits: where was the newspaper review that said “OK acting in an unredeemable play: Two stars out of five”?  Who can be trusted to help us avoid these vanity/audience-soaking projects in the future?  Personally, I would have given this one star out of four, but none of our professionals rise to that challenge.

It may perhaps be too much to contemplate for a professional reviewer to damage his relationship with Ian Rickson, Sonia Friedman, and all the stars, not to mention the theatres that advertise in their pages.  However, it’s worth a quick survey to note who comes closest to having the courage to serve the readers first.

The Guardian’s Michael Billington gets it somewhat close to right, giving three stars out of five, and early in the review saying we get a night of good acting, but “nothing will persuade me that Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play is any more than well-intentioned melodrama.”

The Telegraph, Charles Spencer.  Four stars out of five, “Keira Knightley impressively wins her theatrical spurs in Lillian Hellman’s melodrama, The Children’s Hour.” And, “the whole of Ian Rickson’s atmospheric, slow-burning and ultimately enthralling production proves far more compelling that I expected.” No, not convinced; never again trust the Telegraph.

The Mail’s Quentin Letts finds the space to say: “Too often these days we hear of teachers being accused by pupils and of the authorities swinging into action and finding them guilty until proved innocent. Playwright Hellman was on to something.”  Ahh, only in the Mail. But more to the point, “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 – and the outwardly plain Miss Hannah, in a performance of darting, furtive, fiendish malevolence, is a fantastic find.”  FAIL, never again trust the Mail, as if you did.

The Independent’s Paul Taylor is another strong contender for its honest language, giving three stars out of five: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.” And, “But not even a director as fine as Rickson can stop [Moss’s] suicide from looking like a piece of creakily motivated melodrama.” And, in a deservedly positive aside, he goes out of his way to give his description some detail: “The one truly astonishing performance, though, is that given by Bryony Hannah as the malicious pupil, Mary. Imagine that intimidatingly precocious brat who plays Katherine Hepburn’s kid sister in The Philadelphia Story possessed by an unappeasable demonic hunger and you’ll get some idea of the unnerving, blackly comic force of this Mary’s headlong self-dramatisations amongst the adults and bullying destructiveness among her peers.”

The Evening Standard’s Henry Hitchings, for me, sums up the whole problem.  He’s fairly honest and useful in the text – yet he gives it 4 stars of 5, which you know is all that’s going to show up in the ads: “In short, the acting is cogent, and the stars deliver. Yet for all the glamour and hype, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is a very good production of a historically significant but rather flawed play.” (And again with the praise for Bryony:) “The most arresting work comes from Bryony Hannah as devious Mary Tilford, the elfin adolescent whose deceit destroys her teachers’ reputations.  Hannah’s stylized contribution will divide audiences. Mary is meant to be irritating, and Hannah makes her a serpentine manipulator, wriggling from one weird little intuition to the next – quirky, self-conscious and savage.”

I’m winding down here.  Everyone agrees, and I do too, that Bryony Hannah gave a striking performance – she made the audience uncomfortable, but really convinced us she was a malevolent, hyperactive, scheming 14-year-old girl. Tobias Menzies played Keira’s fiancée as a rare bastion of sanity; I’ll be glad to stumble on him again at some point down the road.  Carol Kane was batty in a good way; possibly the only one of the Big Four actresses who decided to do something with her character (though to be fair it was the least substantial character). Elisabeth Moss was a bit one-note, which was disappointing – her Peggy has more range, and Moss on stage was better in Speed the Plow on Broadway in 2008.  Keira Knightly was one and a half note, which is more than you’d expect, but still not worth building an evening around.

In closing: Avoid The Comedy Theatre, don’t invest in secondary plays, and do trust Henry Hitchings’ words but don’t trust his stars.  And support new writers.  And keep that eye on Scott Landis.

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4 Responses to Review: The Children’s Hour is a Very Bad Play

  1. Aliceson says:

    I can feel the anger churning out of this! You did make me laugh as I felt similarly about my experience at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Review here:

    The one thing I’d highlight that you didn’t mention is that this production is clearly a *star vehicle* play. In other words, the people involved probably don’t give a toss about the play itself but are fairly confident the money will pour in because of the Knightley/Moss double punch.

    I didn’t buy tickets in advance as this seems to be a recurring theme, especially in the current economy where fewer tickets are being sold in advance and punters wait until the critics declare a success. With the casting of this play, the producers completely overcome that and tickets were impossible to get.

    My personal bias is to avoid star casting like the plague, unless the star cast actually has theatre roots, because then I trust them to make better decisions (see: Dominic West, Michael Sheen, even Jude Law).

  2. Anonymous Coward says:

    Sorry, but you’ve got it wrong. And while quite lengthy this diatribe is woefully short on insight.

  3. Cabe says:

    AR – I know, I am largely to blame here for buying tickets before it opened. Optimism over experience. And I can also see the point for the occasional well-marketed star vehicle playing at high prices, to keep the theatre in the black so they can do the risky smaller ones (and Ian can work on a play with Jez for ten years and still pay his gas
    bills). I just didn’t see why they had to do such a bad play – and am honestly curious about the drivers of that decision. At least they let Jude Law do Hamlet!

    PS Other commenter, I love the anonymous driveby – it means we’ve arrived :)

  4. Kim says:

    I thought it was a damn good play – extremely well acted and presented
    I was pleasantly surprised with Knightley’s performance and thoroughly enjoyed it
    Not a waste of money in the slightest!

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