The Children’s Hour
Paul Johnson | 09 Sep 2011 16:44pm
As one of London’s most respected and aspiring amateur theatre societies Putney Theatre Company (PTC) continually and successfully strives to challenge itself. The decision to frequently produce its drama in-the-round, allowing audiences to virtually become part of a production, is testament to this. With only the merest suggestion of props and furniture to service the cast’s requirements the onus sits firmly on the acting (as long as the play stands up, of course) to make or break an evening’s entertainment. Sam Walters, Artistic Director of Richmond’s Orange Tree – whose default set-up is in-the-round – enjoys the “challenge to actors’ inventiveness in a medium where each member of the audience sees a different stage picture.”
Even so, producing Lillian Hellman’s 1930s controversial American drama, The Children’s Hour, in this engaging format – with no less than eight ‘children’ onstage from the outset – could be considered a little foolhardy. That is until you’re reminded that PTC shares its home with Group 64, an impressive two-hundred-strong youth theatre (from which PTC was actually spawned). The octet of schoolgirls was extremely well-rehearsed and opened the doors of the ‘Wright/Dobie School for Girls’ to the audience in style; a brave move by director Gigi Robarts.
Quality of acting aside for a moment, one must presume the administrative minefield of today’s child performing laws heavily influenced the blanket casting of over-sixteens in eight roles that really belonged to girls some three or four years younger. Despite PTC’s extremely competent teenagers producing some excellent performances, I can’t help thinking the production still lost a bit too much of the adult-child gap. In a storyline where one child’s spiteful and destructive lie is believed – with calamitous consequences – the child must first be of an age where innocence and naivety are prevalent. Even in the 1950s (the era PTC set the production) older teenagers knew more than enough about the birds and the bees.
While I’ve quickly popped my moaning hat on I may as well mention the modern uniforms worn by all eight girls. A little more effort to open the production firmly in 1950s America would have paid dividends and the up-to-date skirts and blouses didn’t help – well, the plastic pink watch worn by one particularly absent-minded cast member didn’t help either.
These two quibbles aside there was little else to criticise in what was a wonderfully played out evening of quality theatre.
Francesca Wilde’s ‘Lily Mortar’ was fun to watch in an opening scene where the aging actress gladly leapt at the chance to make the English Literature class her next audience. And it’s not long after this that we first get to meet class bully and spoiled brat, ‘Mary Tilford’ (played with frightening ease by Tiffany Lashley). Here the young actress made a fine job of letting us know exactly who was in charge of Mary’s trio of suffering classmates: ‘Rosalie’ (Caroline Salter), ‘Peggy’ (Pia Gurner-Levy) and ‘Evelyn’ (Emily Fellows). Mary tenaciously bullies her ‘friends’ into revealing the details of an overheard row between ‘Miss Mortar’ and ‘Miss Dobie’ with the latter accused of being increasingly disagreeable whenever ‘Miss Wright’s’ fiancé ‘Dr Cardin’ came to the school; unnatural even – Information which Mary would later elaborately twist in a pivotal conversation with her grandmother.
Mary’s grandmother, Amelia (wonderfully played by Diana Denton Baker who brought bucket-loads of experience and self-assurance to the role) is the unlucky recipient of her runaway granddaughter after Mary has been disciplined by the school’s principals – Miss Dobie and Miss Wright – for an unrepentant tissue of lies. In a bid to stop being sent straight back to school Mary pretends she is frightened to return because of the odd relationship between Miss Dobie and Miss Wright, and that she has indeed witnessed them both performing unnatural acts. And as easily as that, Amelia Tilford calls all the other parents and guardians who promptly collect their children from this cesspit of evil. Despite protests and subsequent failed law-suit by the two school principals, the school is closed and relationships left in tatters. The fact that Martha eventually admits to Karen that she really does love her best friend in ‘that way’ is almost inconsequential to the destructive storyline except that it then leads to Martha’s offstage suicide – which compounds even more the gravity of unfolded events.
As the boarding school’s co-founders and principal teachers Leonora Barton (Karen Wright) and Devon Lang Wilton (Martha Dobie) were quite excellent and worked exceptionally well opposite each another having both perfected respective New England accents. Together they were completely believable and drew the audience into a world where these two best friends and teachers had worked tirelessly for everything they had achieved. Unfortunately I wasn’t as convinced by Tom Sainsbury’s portrayal of Dr Joe Cardin; a slightly over-the-top and out-of-place characterisation that left me having difficulty believing this man fitted the role of town physician, Karen’s fiancé and Mary’s cousin.
What another powerful evening at Putney Arts Theatre this was. Tony Bennett’s subtle yet sufficient design was inspired under the charge of director Robarts who obviously had the insight to orchestrate scenes where necessary but also to let her actors express themselves whenever possible.
This story is as relevant today as when Lillian Hellman wrote “The Childrens Hour in 1934, particularly in today’s teaching profession: ‘The NASUWT Teachers’ Union, says it has had 2,316 allegations brought against its members in recent years, of which 2,231 have been concluded. Only 105 or about 5% had resulted in any action being brought against the teacher.” (BBC News website: 18th March 2008).
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- : 15/09/2010