first night

The Children's Hour

Maurice Samely reviews the last DST production of the year LTC's 'The Children's Hour'

 

Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play about accusations of lesbianism at a girls’ boarding school is not blessed with a subtle script, but the cast and crew of Lion Theatre Company excel in the elements over which they have control. The acting is consistently strong, the direction is mature, and the austere interior of Hatfield Chapel handsomely evokes a pre-war world of propriety and decorum.

 

At the heart of the story are two female teachers who have set up a boarding school together. When they punish a student for lying, the girl starts a rumour that the two women are more fond of one another than is ‘natural’. The ease with which she convinces adults somewhat stretches credibility, but Annie Davison’s transformation from steel-eyed bully in the dormitory to vulnerable child at her grandmother’s house brings out her character’s formidable ability to manipulate.

 

At the time the play premiered in New York homosexuality as a theme was still banned from the stage, and same-sex sexual activity would not be legal there until 1980. As a consequence the word ‘lesbian’ is never spoken, and the play begins to revolve around a centre of prevarication, the source of outrage hidden behind a whispering hand or a carefully worded formulation. In this atmosphere it would be easy for performances to slip into melodrama, but director Izzie Price shows a firm hand in guiding her actors to straight tragic performances, with impressive results.

 

Georgina Armfield is outstanding as the teacher at the centre of the storm, adeptly contrasting turns as the impatient schoolmistress with moments of tenderness with her friend and colleague (Izzy Mitchell). Mitchell gives a fine performance, combining understated facial expressions with natural movement around the stage.

 

Blocking is generally very good, although in the most complex scene, where the two teachers confront the rumour-spreading grandmother in her home, the actors hover too much on the peripheries of the stage, and some tension is lost. That scene would also benefit from cues being picked up quicker.

 

The quality of the acting is strong throughout, however, and supporting cast members give the piece depth and variety. Clara Duncan is persuasive as the prudish grandmother, but she could do with raising her voice a little, as some lines could not be heard. Carrie Gaunt shines as a wacky teacher who annoys all of the other characters, and her comic re-appearance at the end of the play’s swan song gives momentary relief from oppressive misery.

 

Props and costumes are well-chosen and consistent, and clearly set the period. Staging is also excellent – the chapel floor is used well to clearly demarcate location, and having a maid change the scene is a nice touch. Sound and music, however, should be better integrated into the performance. Several times music played at the close of the scene comes in too early, and some sound effects, particularly a crucial one at the end of the play, are a disappointment.

 

My only real gripe, however, is with the play itself. It is a tame attempt at social-realist tragedy in the manner of Ibsen or Miller – the dialogue is uninspired and the progression predictable. Given this disadvantage, it is impressive what Lion Theatre Company achieve in their production. A clear vision and experienced management of all aspects of the show from first-time director Price make the play coherent, and the actors give it emotional integrity. The result is a quietly serious production that is ultimately moving. 

19 June 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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