Saturday, 23 June 2018

Theatre review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Lia Williams takes on another iconic role as the Donald and Margot Warehouse stages Muriel Spark's novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in a new adaptation by David Harrower. In a private Edinburgh girls' school in the 1930s, the final year of juniors is taught by Williams' titular Miss Brodie, a free spirit who avoids the curriculum wherever possible, preferring to teach "her girls" to be independent thinkers - as well as how to deport themselves in her own image, and aim for future success in the fields she believes them best-suited to. Sharing with them stories of her European travels and tragedies from her personal life, she becomes an inspirational figure many of them stay loyal to even when they've moved on to senior school, returning to spend time with her and the male teachers who are similarly enraptured by her. But as time goes on Sandy (Rona Morison) starts to see the cracks in her idol.

Because The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a brilliant deconstruction of the trope of the inspirational, rebellious teacher, and the revelation in Polly Findlay's production and Williams' performance is how organically they expose the truth.

Miss Brodie is easy to love, witty and lively with a style that even at her worst is never less than sickening (I've heard more than one person say that her lewks, designed by Lizzie Clachan, have got drag queens frothing with jealousy.) But we're seeing her through the eyes of 11-year-olds, and as the girls get older the scales fall from their eyes, Miss Brodie's enthusiasm for the rising fascist leaders starts to look less like naiveté and more like a genuine belief, and the sympathy shifts from her to Sylvestra Le Touzel's headmistress Miss Mackay: Initially seen as a joyless harridan, she increasingly seems like a voice of reason and understandable concern that Miss Brodie is a harmful influence.

Nowhere is this more obvious than with Nicola Coughlan's Joyce Emily, a shy girl who briefly finds a friend in Sandy, but is left alone again when Miss Brodie leaves her out of her inner circle and her girls follow suit. The story is told in flashback as Sandy, who's given up the successful career in psychology Miss Brodie steered her towards to become a nun - something that would have horrified her former teacher's hatred of organised religion - is interviewed by a journalist (Kit Young) who thinks he's spotted the real reason for her unusual career trajectory.

The production pairs Williams up with Angus Wright again as Mr Lowther, the shy music teacher in love with Miss Brodie, and it's fun to watch the two play such a different dynamic to the one in the Oresteia. Findlay's production is generally well-cast and a great mix of entertainment and darkness, but the ultimate triumph is inevitably Williams' as we watch her seamlessly take Miss Brodie from iconic inspirational figure to the broken monster within, always managing to hold onto some sympathy for the circumstances that brought her there.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by David Harrower, based on the novel by Muriel Spark, is booking until the 28th of July at the Donmar Warehouse (returns and klaxon tickets only.)

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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