An actor needs a great role to show what he or she is really made of. Keira Knightley earns her acting chops with an impressive performance in the lesbian- themed drama “The Children’s Hour” in London.
She plays Karen Wright, a New England teacher in charge of a school for girls in the 1930s. From the moment she sweeps in, dressed in a sensible skirt and her hair in a severe side-part, she exudes effortless authority over the fractious little gigglers in her charge.
The second they leave, it’s a joy to see her frisk around the room, behaving like a girl herself. Her colleague Martha Dobie (Elisabeth Moss from “Mad Men”), joins in.
Things begin to go wrong when Mary Tyler (Bryony Hannah), a damaged and manipulative student, tells her grandmother that the two teachers are having an affair.
That’s when we see what Knightley can do when given dramatic meat to chew. Her anger, despair and frustration stew, each bubbling to the surface in turn, as she struggles to hold her life together. She squirms when physical comfort is offered. Reactions to every kind word or cruel taunt flit across her face with the speed of thought.
Author Lillian Hellman keeps the tension up neatly in her well-made, if creaky, 1934 play from the closeted era: Is the accusation a lie, or not? Moss, who struggles to contain her jealousy of Karen’s fiance, subtly keeps us guessing.
If a few melodramatic plot twists show the cogs turning behind the plot, it doesn’t detract from the powerful way in which accusations are shown to poison and undermine every social exchange, even between well-wishers. The climax, when it comes, is powerful.
As the self-loathing accuser, the gawky and loose-limbed Hannah flings herself around the stage like a rag doll: She’s never comfortable in her own skin, flopping in and out of chairs, wriggling about. The brutality and growing nervous exultation she displays as her power increases is fascinating to trace.
Oscar-winning Ellen Burstyn plays Mary’s grandmother Amelia, who becomes the prime mover against Karen and Martha. Aristocratic and dignified, she brings sympathy to a role that easily could be reduced to primary colors.
Mark Thompson’s gray clapboard set starts out as a plain battered schoolroom. With a few descending pillars and a chandelier, it cleverly transforms into Amelia’s comfortable parlor. Director Ian Rickson paces the action and keeps the tension taut right to the end.
It says something that even among all this talent, Knightley adds magical oomph to a chunky role. Rating: ****.
There’s a different take on matters gay over at the Apollo Theatre. U.S. actor Leslie Jordan presents a 90-minute camp memoir in “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet.”
There are childhood memories of his southern Baptist upbringing. “It was in these pews I learned to hate myself,” he says. He moves to Hollywood, and gets some roles. There are anecdotes about George Clooney (very sweet), and shooting an advert with Boy George (very bitter). He tells how he bagged the ultra-gay role of Beverley Leslie on “Will and Grace.”
There’s an obligatory descent into drink and drugs, followed by a spell in rehab. Cue sentimental confessions.
It’s inoffensive stuff, even if presented with more cheerleader perkiness than sharp comic timing.
The oddest element of the piece, apart from such a niche show ending up in a sizeable West End theater, is the heard-it- before quality. It’s all somehow cut and pasted to sound like the memoirs of a grand Tinseltown survivor, in the manner of Elaine Stritch or Bea Arthur.
Hey, Jordan’s 55. He needs to be around a bit longer to earn that right -- and get toothier anecdotes. Rating: **.
“The Children’s Hour” is at the Comedy Theatre through April 30. Information: http://www.ambassadortickets.com or +44-844-871-7615.
“My Trip Down the Pink Carpet” is at the Apollo Theatre until Feb. 19, http://www.nimaxtheatres.com or +44-844-412-4658.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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