Keira Knightley 'wins spurs' with West End stage return

Elisabeth Moss and Keira Knightley in The Children's Hour Moss (l) is best known for her TV roles in Mad Men and The West Wing

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Keira Knightley's return to the West End has drawn respectable reviews, with one critic saying the British actress has now "won her theatrical spurs".

Danny DeVito and Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha were among the audience as the 25-year-old took her bows at London's Comedy theatre.

Knightley is appearing with US Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss in The Children's Hour, by Lillian Hellman.

The 1934 play tells of teachers accused of having an illicit lesbian affair.

Knightley received mixed reviews when she made her West End debut in 2009 in an updated version of Moliere's The Misanthrope.

Writing about that production, Charles Spencer in the Telegraph said: "She got through it with her dignity intact, but often seemed strained and nervous".

This time, however, he said the actress "displays confidence throughout before rising in the final act to dramatic heights that are shattering in their intensity".

The critic also praised Moss for "a fascinatingly conflicted performance that is as subtle as it is strong".

OUR VERDICT

Unsold tickets for this production are likely to be rarer than hen's teeth at the end of a rainbow.

But is it any good? In truth, Lillian Hellman's vintage play looks more than a little creaky.

This man in the stalls spent most of the first act musing how more elegantly Arthur Miller treated similar themes in his Salem witch-hunt drama The Crucible.

But things got much better after the interval. The action stepped up a gear, the stakes got higher and the actors responded in kind.

Knightley's American accent might not have made it all the way across the Atlantic and she seemed self-conscious on occasion.

Yet this remains an accomplished, committed and ultimately moving performance that will win her both kudos and respect.

Tobias Menzies, one of only two male cast members, also acquits himself well as the doctor caught between his loyalty to Knightley's character and a creeping suspicion that she has something to hide.

It is Bryony Hannah who steals the show, though, as the malevolent pupil whose loose tongue causes so much trouble.

Physically and vocally dexterous, she proves utterly compelling in a show whose eye-catching parts don't quite add up to a satisfying whole.

According to Michael Billington in the Guardian, Knightley and Moss "prove as potent a combination on stage as at the box office".

"Ian Rickson's atmospheric, slow-burning and ultimately enthralling production proves far more compelling that I expected," his three-star review continued.

Yet The Daily Mail's Quentin Letts expressed reservations, comparing Knightley to "one of those plucky amateur jockeys in the Grand National".

"Miss Knightley tries," he writes. "By God, she tries. She turns in a performance of which many a journeyman thesp would be proud.

"But is she a real leading lady? Is she a genuine stage star? Not quite."

The Children's Hour, which also features Oscar-winning actress Ellen Burstyn and veteran comedienne Carol Kane, has been filmed twice.

The second version, released as The Loudest Whisper in the UK, starred Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner.

It was last staged in London at the National Theatre, with Dame Harriet Walter and Clare Higgins as the teachers, and Emily Watson as the pupil who accuses them.

In the latest production, that part is played by Rada-trained Bryony Hannah, singled out for praise by the critics.

"Hannah is memorably sly and horrible as the young troublemaker," writes Spencer, while Letts calls her "a fantastic find".

The Children's Hour continues at the Comedy until 30 April. Knightley can also be seen this week in the film Never Let Me Go, based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel.

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