THEATRE / Tears before bedtime: Paul Taylor reviews The Children's Hour at the Lyttelton in London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
When Lillian Hellman's 1934 play The Children's Hour was revived in New York in the Fifties, the topical analogy was with the Red Scare and McCarthyite witch-hunts. Watching the play today, it is dodgy allegations of child abuse and sexual harassment that are likely to be brought to mind as we watch two female teachers, Karen and Martha, being destroyed by a girl at their private boarding school, who maliciously and groundlessly claims that they are lesbian lovers.

Not that any of these parallels work in a systematic way, particularly not the political one. Famously, the last act contains the 'surprise' twist of Martha's confession and suicide. The ordeal has forced her to recognise the lesbian feelings she had hitherto repressed. Emotionally, if not in practice, she was 'guilty' as charged. Now, while it is just about possible to be unconscious of your true sexuality, it would be a quite remarkable person who could be unconscious of the fact that he or she had once been a card- carrying member of the Communist Party.

It's to Hellman's credit that she refused to inform on others to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, though her capacity to touch up and glorify her own past did not go unremarked by the likes of Mary McCarthy, who notoriously claimed on a chat show that 'every word (Hellman) writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'.' Indeed, it's interesting to note how even in this play about lying, the material is dishonestly manipulated. Involving and well-judged, Howard Davies's Lyttelton production can't stop it from coming across as an uneasy mix of penetrating stretches and melodramatic engineering.

The most moving passage, to my mind, was that in the last act where a tearful, distraught Harriet Walter as the non-gay teacher demonstrates how deeply the scandal has eaten into her ability to trust. Though clearly hating herself for it, she knows that her well-meaning fiancee (William Gaminara) will never be able to give her the bottomless reassurance that she now needs. And so she rejects his offer of a new start somewhere else. With affecting skill, Walter shows you the predicament of someone all too aware that it's not just the parents of the pupils who have been psychologically poisoned by this affair.

Clare Higgins also makes a strong impression as Martha. Yet, not withstanding the ambiguous way she registers the woman's pained lack of ease whenever Karen's fiancee is around, there's something so fundamentally mettlesome and abrasively spirited about her portrayal that the last act suicide feels even more like a melodramatic convenience. But then implausibilities in the writing spoil, throughout, your pleasure in the felicities of the performances.

For example, pigtailed, lankily intimidating Emily Watson and Gillian Barge are both very fine as Mary, the girl who starts the scandal, and her credulous grande dame of a grandmother. You can see in the calculating flickers of her nasty little eyes that Mary is an Iago figure who only cottons on to the prejudices she can activate as she goes along. She's chilling, like some nightmare advertisement for puberty, and Barge as the grandmother seems to be fighting down self-revulsion even as she allows curiosity to get the better of her.

But the real difficulties that surround the taking of evidence from children are crudely bypassed here when another schoolgirl, whom Mary is blackmailing, corroborates the liar's story. She does this only because Mary is allowed to remain in the room, laying on the perverse pressure. A child of 10 could spot the flaw in that procedure.

Alison Fiske is splendid as the theatrical, out-for-herself Aunt, especially in the final act. A pity Hellman over-milks the material. 'Get out of here and be noble on the street': you'd need great presence of mind to utter a line like that with a loved one's corpse scarcely cold in a neighbouring room.

'The Children's Hour' is in repertory (Booking: 071-928 2252)