The Children’s Hour

(Centenary Theatre Group)


The Children’s Hour is an American classic that explores the impact a lie can have on people’s lives. In this case the big lie is a schoolgirl’s accusation that the headmistresses at her country girls’ school are lovers. The claim of a lesbian affair scandalises the school community and ruins the lives of teachers Karen Wright (Jane Cameron), Martha Dobie (Bianca Cole) and Karen’s fiancé Joseph Cardin (Guy Smith), a country doctor.

This is a beautifully crafted play and quite believable. While the treatment of lesbianism on stage is no longer the scandalous event as when The Children’s Hour was first performed on Broadway in 1934, allegations of misconduct by teachers is a perennial issue. This must be close to every teacher’s worst nightmare falsely accused of misconduct by a malicious and manipulative adolescent.

In any case, it is not the nature of allegation that makes this play so powerful… it is the impact the allegation has on people’s lives. In 1952 author Lillian Hellman had first-hand experience of unsubstantiated allegations and innuendo when she appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee. She showed great personal courage by refusing to name and “hurt innocent people” who might have communist associations. Consequently she was blacklisted in Hollywood and managed financially by revising and reviving The Children’s Hour. The 1952 version of the play has been used for this production. Knowledge of the writer’s personal circumstances adds even greater poignancy to the plot.

Director Brenda White has staged the play as a period piece, complete with living room furniture appropriate to the Wright-Dobie school (Acts 1 and 3) and the home of Mary’s well to do grandmother (Act 2). Some subtle changes bookcases become display cases, a crystal whisky decanter and glasses are placed on the table cleverly transform one living room set to the next. White has also chosen to present the play with American accents, something the cast handles surprisingly well, though I wonder what, if anything, the accents contribute to our understanding of the play.

A feature of The Children’s Hour is the performance of the seven young cast members who play students, Peggy Rogers (Kate Sweetman), Catherine Miller (Christine Tait), Lois Fisher (Amanda Parkinson), Evelyn Munn (Ilsa Wynne-Hoelscher), Helen Burton (Gemma Paschelk), Rosalie Wells (Amy Campbell) and Mary Tilford (Amy Coutts).

Coutts plays the manipulative Mary with just the right blend of adolescent self-centredness, bitchiness and charm while 15-year-old St Aidan’s schoolgirl Kate Sweetman also shines in her role as Mary’s room mate Peggy. Of the more mature players, Jane Cameron gives a wonderfully even performance, while Bianca Cole, Lynda Fox (grandmother Amelia Tilford), and Susan Marquet (actress, sometime teacher and Miss Dobie’s aunt Lily Mortar) all provide excellent moments.

It’s a long show (two hours 45 minutes with two 15 minute intervals) yet it moves very quickly. The third act is particularly gripping as the awful results of the lies and accompanying innuendo become tragically obvious. We have a procession of powerful scenes as our players confront their personal demons Karen Wright and Martha Dobie; Karen Wright and Joseph Cardin; Karen Wright and Lily Mortar; and Karen Wright and Amelia Tilford.

— John Algate
(Performance seen: Fri 1st August 2003)