Though the old melodramatic machine may creak a bit at moments and the subject of the lie - lesbianism - not have quite the shock power it once had, the play is still a powerful indictment of unleashed evil and mob prejudice, and a moving study of minds and souls crumbling under pressure.
It is also - and this will be of far more interest to a large part of the audience - an effective vehicle for a movie star and a TV star. And those who come just to see Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss will get the bonus of two other familiar faces, Ellen Burstyn and Carol Kane, as well as the introduction to a potential new star, Bryony Hannah.
Knightley and Moss play the co-owners of a small girls' school, at which Hannah is their most problematic pupil. In a fit of pique the girl makes a charge against them that she herself does not fully understand, her rich and influential grandmother believes her, and the women's careers and lives are ruined. And then, cracking under the pressure, one of them begins to wonder if the charge was true.
Though the issues the play raises transcend the sexual and remain relevant, the real power of the play lies in the character studies and the acting opportunities they provide.
As directed by Ian Rickson, Keira Knightley plays the stronger-willed victim with what seems at first like cool composure, but is soon revealed to be the tight self-control of one living every day on her nerves' ends, in a constant fight, both before and after the crisis, against hysteria. It's a battle the character generally wins, but Knightley makes us aware of the soul-draining cost.
Elisabeth Moss plays her friend as more open to her emotions from the start, so that extremes of anger or despair are a shorter journey for her, and it is thus sadly ironic that she is the one who cracks and discovers (or thinks she discovers) emotions she hadn't known she was feeling.
The big discovery of the evening is relative newcomer Bryony Hannah as the girl, capturing all the bullying power, egocentricity, near-madness and pure malice while still letting us see the deeply disturbed and unhappy child beneath the villain.
The other three major roles in the play are more plot functions than fully developed characters, and it is much to the credit of actors and director that they flesh them out as fully as they do. Ellen Burstyn can't quite make the grandmother as tragic a figure as she tries, though she does succeed in moving her into the camp of the victims rather than villains.
Carol Kane's role, of an eccentric aunt, is there just to be a distracting extra burden to the central characters, and she fulfils it without being able to make the woman real or relevant. Tobias Menzies does more than you'd expect with the badly underwritten role of Knightley's fiancÚ, as a man completely out of his depth and trying desperately to do the right thing.
A fault in this production that lies partly in the script but more in Ian Rickman's direction is that too much is given away far too quickly, depriving us of uncertainties and ambiguities that would be more dramatically satisfying.
Elisabeth Moss is directed to look adoringly at Knightley throughout the opening scenes, Carol Kane is too obviously nothing more than comic relief, and Bryony Hannah enters so close to barking mad that there is little place for the character or actress to go.
For some reason dialect coach Joan Washington has given most of the cast New York ethnic accents, so they sound more like extras from The Sopranos than residents of a New England village.
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- The Children's Hour - Comedy 2011