Talk to anyone who knows me and they will tell you I am an expert on everything. Politicians, murderers, horses, daffodil bulbs. Know everything I do. Can spot a dyke at a mile off. There were two in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, Dunstable Rep’s latest production. Two teachers. Wore matching brown shoes, very heavy and butch, and unflattering attire. Must be lesbians. Obvious. Told you I was an expert. So is the nasty little schoolgirl who points a poisonous finger at them and destroys their lives. Aided and abetted by a grandmother who, with unseemly haste, backs her tale and starts the mass exodus of pupils. The offstage wagging tongues in this splendid production were almost as loud as the constantly ticking clock which framed each scene. Apparently the play is based on a real case in Edinburgh in 1810 when these fictionalised events actually happened. Oh all right I ain’t an expert on that. But google is. Tells me dyke is offensive, if it is I apologise, but the two in this play certainly weren’t. Theatrically and dramatically they were the bee’s knees. By the way I am an expert on bees. Oh, shut up Roy and get on with it.
I have always admired Annalise Carter-Brown. Cracking actress who occasionally gets short changed. Not in this one. As the frustrated and embittered Martha Dobie, unloved and unlovely, she fired on all her emotional cylinders. Every line was razor sharp and clear as crystal and her last scene, recognising unspoken desires, was both powerful and gripping. A super performance of the highest class. Against such firepower it would be forgivable if the object of her suppressed affections, fellow teacher Karen Wright, suffered in comparison. It says a lot for the abilities of Kim Albone that this never happened. In a beautifully crafted portrayal Miss Albone held her corner at every twist and turn. Here was a woman with dignity and poise and astute recognition that mud, however undeserved, irrevocably sticks. These two actresses created a compelling, understated, relationship which absorbed for its ordinariness as much as its underlying drama. I take my hat off to them both.
But you don’t get four stars from me if the leads sparkle but the rest are desultory dross. They weren’t in Lucy O’Hare’s beautifully crafted piece. Rona Cracknell was absolutely superb as the shallow and self centred Lily Mortar, ageing actress and temporary teacher, and young Victoria Moyle gave a breathtaking performance as the odious twelve year old Mary Tilford. I expect assurance from Miss Cracknell, an accomplished actress to her fingertips, to get one equally good from such a young performer was a delightful bonus. Miss Moyle oozed malice and manipulation in equal, and completely believable, poison spitting proportions. We also got skilled and believable portrayals from Matt Flitton in the thankless role of Dr Joe Cardin, it’s thankless because he is so bloody nice, Julie Hanns as a no nonsense Agatha, and Anne Blow as the intransigent Mrs Tilford. In her best performance to date Julie Hanns was a totally convincing vinegar laced domestic and my only caveat with Anne Blow’s interpretation of the grandmother is that I would have liked a little more steel in her determination. I quite liked her, and I reckon I should have loathed her almost as much as the young viper she held to her bosom.
Lucy O’Hare, a director I enviously admire so much it is time I spread malicious rumours about her, rarely put a foot wrong. She got an interesting set from Cameron Hay, private house turned into private school, lovely atmospheric music, and some nice ensemble playing from the schoolgirls. Delilah West’s Peggy and diminutive Claire Gower’s Helen were the best of them for audibility and projection but all performed with discipline and teamwork. Wobbly and confusing lighting in Act Two irritated and the leitmotif ticking clock of time intruded at times. But these are minor niggles. The Children’s Hour was an absorbing couple of hours. Noel Coward’s famous quote on a play that bored doesn’t apply here. Or only obliquely. He said that they should cut the second act and the child’s throat. Theatrically speaking, I and some others would endorse that latter comment. It was that good. I am also an expert on theatrical quotes. Did I ever tell you that? Roy Hall