The Children's Hour, Comedy Theatre, London
Plenty, Crucible Studio, Sheffield
The Heretic, Royal Court Downstairs, London

Puberty, lies and longing prove an eternally volatile formula in this starrily cast and largely absorbing tale of lesbophobia at a girls' boarding school

Stir a spot of troubled water and you might start a whirlpool.

That's metaphorically what happens in The Children's Hour, Lillian Hellman's 1930s drama about the power of lies, suppressed desires and dangerous pubescent girls. Her script was censored by Britain's primly paranoid Lord Chamberlain at the time, but it evidently influenced Arthur Miller's 1950s masterpiece, The Crucible. And now it's enjoying a star-studded West End production, featuring Keira Knightley.

In a rural backwater, in the reactionary heart of the United States, Mary Tilford is a problem child who regularly wriggles out of punishments and chillingly contrives to rule the roost. When a fainting fit is dismissed as play-acting, she points an accusatory finger at her two schoolmistresses, Karen and Martha, saying she has seen them locked in an illicit embrace (though we witness no lesbian kisses).

Karen and Martha (Knightley and Elisabeth Moss from Mad Men) have invested everything in their homely, clapboard establishment for boarding girls. Yet Mary (Bryony Hannah) is believed by her indulgent grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) and by the hidebound community when a classmate backs up her claims. The stigmatised teachers threaten a slander trial and the local doctor – Karen's fiancé (Tobias Menzies) – insists he will stand by them. Little lies are pervasive, however, sucking everybody into an abyss of uncertainty.

Though almost certainly heading for a Broadway transfer, Ian Rickson's production has a few weak points (and the NT's memorable 1994 premiere to rival). It gets off to a slightly slow, over-choreographed start with a bunch of schoolgirls goggling at an erotic novel. Carol Kane does not get many laughs as Martha's parasitical, chiffon-twirling aunt. And the play's final Act has just one narrative twist too many.

The evening is mostly riveting, nonetheless. Hellman combined her radical condemnation of lesbo-phobia with a chain of deftly crafted plot developments which – while old-school in a way – keep you hair-raisingly in thrall.

One might cynically wonder if Knightley and Moss were unimaginative commercial casting (faintly resembling Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine from the 1961 film version). Knightley isn't half bad, though, with initial hands-on gentleness, later spiralling into despair and rage. Moss is electrifying and psychologically complex, with smothered jealousy. Menzies is on top form as the almost heroically stalwart Dr Cardin. And Hannah's scrawny Mary is terrifically unsettling, with the body language of a screwed-up teenage boy: a hand slung, in frustration, up the back of the neck, then darting out viciously, or grasping desperately for affection.

In Sir David Hare's outstanding early play Plenty (from 1978), Susan Traherne is a would-be free spirit ahead of her time. Her peregrinations and changing character are set against a background of major political events, including the Suez Crisis. Hare cuts back and forth, giving us fragmentary glimpses of Susan in the Forties, Fifties and early Sixties.

In Thea Sharrock's superb studio production – opening the Crucible Theatre's Hare Season – we see Hattie Morahan's Susan terrified yet liberated by living dangerously in the Second World War. Working undercover in occupied France, she has an unforgettably romantic brush with a stranger, codenamed Lazar (David Bark-Jones). Then, hoping for a new dawn, she hangs out in London with Kirsty Bushell's Alice, a louche boho in gender-bending pinstripes.

Nonetheless, post-war life disappoints (echoing Terence Rattigan's After the Dance). Susan sells out and marries a rising diplomat called Brock (Edward Bennett). Then unable to brook the role of rich, demure hostess, she goes increasingly crazy, launching a verbal blitzkrieg over ambassadorial cocktails, and leaving Brock's life in shards.

Compared with some of Hare's more clunking epics, Plenty combines the political and the personal with a structurally light touch and some wonderfully droll dialogue. Sharrock's thrust-stage production is poignantly intimate, Morahan brillinantly mercurial, and Bruce Alexander priceless as Sir Leonard, Brock's winded but still punctiliously clipped superior. Meanwhile the production quietly brings out – through Brock's self-sacrificing marital devotion – the famously left-wing playwright's compassion for essentially decent, conservative types, and his mistrust of scornful proto-feminists.

Susan's romantic and wealth-ditching ideals prove semi-deluded while, in The Heretic, Juliet Stevenson's Dr Cassell argues that Anthropogenic Global Warming is our era's dubious orthodoxy. AGW is, she holds, an empirically unproven popular religion, greed having sparked guilt.

In Richard Bean's new, provocative seriocomedy, her Climate Change Sceptic or CCS stance infuriates her funding-driven university boss and ex-lover (James Fleet). She simultaneously receives death threats from eco-guerillas who've found out her home address, as has Johnny Flynn's Ben, a twitchy student apparently taken with Diane's bolshy daughter.

Accompanied by whiteboard graphs demonstrating how statistics can be manipulated to look scary, the CCS arguments are certainly thought-provoking. However, they're sidelined by a romcom happy ending, and The Heretic feels generically heterogeneous. Still, it's quite frequently hilarious and, when death becomes an immediate danger, the suspense and raw emotion is startling.

'The Children's Hour' (0844 871 7622) booking to 2 Apr; 'Plenty' (0114-249 6000) to 26 Feb; 'The Heretic' (020-7565 5000) to 19 Mar

Next Week:

Kate Bassett takes a peek at Alan Ayckbourn's Snake in the Grass at new London venue, The Print Room

Theatre Choice

Bruce Norris's sharp US satire Clybourne Park dealing with race relations over half a century, now at Wyndham's in the West End (to 7 May). Also in London, Becky Shaw is a sardonic US sitcom, slick but with an edge of menace, at the Almeida (to 5 Mar). If farce is your bag, Tom Hollander is hilarious, doubling as uptight gent and drunken porter in Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear (Old Vic to 5 Mar).

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'