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Schoolgirl lies and hidden truths

PUBLISHED: 16:48 27 May 2009 | UPDATED: 17:28 16 August 2010

A BRAVE production of Lillian Hellman s rarely performed play The Children s Hour resonated out to a full and attentive house at Bromley Little Theatre, writes Melody Foreman.

A BRAVE production of Lillian Hellman's rarely performed play The Children's Hour resonated out to a full and attentive house at Bromley Little Theatre, writes Melody Foreman.

Sometimes effervescent, sometimes bleak, Hellman's 1930s' script was brought alive by a mixed range of talent who showed they weren't afraid of exposing the spiteful kind of behaviour that gives us all a bad name and ultimately leads to ruination.

Perceived as a dark and brooding play at the time of its inception, The Children's Hour, as clued-up director Jane Buckland points out, is all about a lie - and a schoolgirl's lie at that which exposes the unmentionable of the time - a, shock, horror, lesbian relationship between two teachers who run the school.

The great fib is told by the bully in the play - young Mary Tilford who was wilfully and dogmatically played by Sidcup's Rose Bruford College of Drama student, Imogen Alister-Dilks.

Snub-nosed and tangled haired, Alister-Dilks gave us a hearty performance so full of petulant gusto it often upstaged the efforts of other performers struggling to find their own space around her bullish approach to this small stage.

The two teachers who run the school, Misses Martha Dobie and Karen Wright were played by Jane Lobb and Ruth Jarvis. In the 1950s' film of this American play Shirley MacClaine and Audrey Hepburn appeared in these roles and I remembered how exquisitely they exuded the kind of inexplicable knowing and communication that exists between tremendously good friends.

At Bromley Little Theatre I needed to see some of this telepathy and tenderness between the Misses Dobie and Wright if I was to be completely convinced of any tension that brewed up later in the play once Mary had delivered her poisonous lie to her over-protective and meddling grandmother, Amelia Tilford. This character was efficiently played by Pauline Armour whose character took it upon herself to spread the rumour so all the parents withdrew their children from the school.

But sadly I couldn't quite get the message there was any real friendship at all to provide us with the basis of the truth when we discover Miss Dobie really was secretly in love with her colleague and was struggling to come to terms not only with this but the fact the school bully had told Amelia Tilford the truth after all even though there had never been any physical interplay apart from the odd concerned touch of the arm.

For Miss Wright however it was all a lie and she then faced the drama of watching her fiancé, Dr Joseph Cardin, played solemnly by Simon Peel, get his head around the suspicion she may not be telling him the truth after all.

Complicated? It is. There are lots of clever surprises delivered to us via Hellman's brilliant writing and I was impressed by the way the direction brought the play into a modern day context by reminding us how teachers often face all sorts of unfounded accusations by children and parents alike. And more often than not their careers are ruined whether found guilty or not.

Misses Dobie and Wright had the full horror of the 'mud sticks' shame and their school is closed down and they lose their agonising court case against Mrs Tilford after suing her for slander.

Most impressive was the set design created by the director and Tim Betts. The quick and effective changes of various flats and furniture including a fireplace, pictures and tables, created various locations in, around and outside the school.

It was just a shame the double white doors made Jim Kirkland's lighting so startlingly bright for most of the scenes. Technically there were one or two problems and the sound effects were a little, er.. ineffective. Was the doorbell ring the same as that of the phone? And the sound of gunshot was as loud as the plod of someone dropping a shoe. This happened at the end of the play after the tortured Miss Dobie has confessed to Miss Wright she really does love her. She reveals all this after Miss Wright has terminated her engagement to Dr Cardin because she realises he can't cope with the suspicion hanging over their relationship. Miss Wright forgives her and they make tepid plans to start over elsewhere. But Martha Dobie, confused with even more guilt, commits suicide and we see the old woman, Mrs Tilford visit Miss Wright begging for her forgiveness before the curtain comes down.

This was a decently, admirably produced play and with just a little more tension, menace and subtlety it would have packed the kind of punch Hellman intended it to.

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