The Theatreguide.London Review
Of Miss Jean Brodie
Donmar Theatre Summer 2018
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of those
rites of passage narratives that takes on a fresh resonance with each
outing. And that's certainly the case with David Harrower's new stage
version of Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel – a finely honed adaptation that
balances wit and drama to chart the rise and fall of of this most
charismatic and complex of characters.
Miss Brodie (Lia Williams) is the junior school mistress who rejoices being 'in her prime' and so feels empowered to cultivate selected pupils, the 'creme de la creme', destined for adult greatness.
Like a secret club, she introduces her girls
to the finer points of culture while strewing pearls of wisdom about the
rosy destinies that await, seemingly oblivious to the unease, resentment
even, of her fellow teachers
We’re introduced to this world – set in 1930s Edinburgh – by the simple flashback device of journalist (Kit Young) interviewing former pupil Sandy (Rona Morison), now grown up. Sandy is about to become a nun and vanish into silence so the clock’s ticking, but she’s strangely reluctant on the subject of Miss Brodie.
In many ways this is the tale of two women – one rising as the other falls. Sandy learns to navigate the hype as she observes her mentor put thespian Jenny (Helena Wilson) on a pedestal while letting go of bookish Monica (Grace Saif) or fatally misguiding idealistic Joyce Emily (Nicola Coughlan)
Alarm bells go off as life starts to pass by Miss Brodie, who sees her grip slipping over her romantic triangle with married art teacher Mr Lloyd (Edward McLoam) and available choirmaster Mr Lowther (Angus Wright).
As the straitlaced school head Miss Mackay (Sylvestra Le Touzel) starts to circle, seeking to edge her maverick employee away to a 'progressive' school, Miss Brodie's aspiration to elitism turns to apology for fascism, just as the line blurs between encouragement and manipulation – and the precious loyalty demanded of her girls turns to betrayal.
The inspired casting of Lia Williams as Miss Brodie alone makes this Donmar production a stand-out. Sensitive, steely, dippy, deep, Williams displays every contradictory facet with near simultaneity. Letting the sad glamour shine through, she also doesn’t miss a laugh from the wicked one-liners Harrower throws her.
Williams' energy is easily matched by the other cast members, an energy harnessed by Polly Findlay's finely judged direction across the roomy stage, a flexibly sparse set with a splash of Mackintosh glass and bells of many sizes that add evocative transitions.
The interleaved episodes don’t always gel, and things slump at the beginning of Act II – though the pace picks up in time to deliver the emotional resolution. And do be warned that voices can be hard to follow due to odd blocking and the soft Edinburgh tones.
Harrower racks up the sparkling dialogue yet doesn't shirk from pushing Spark's multi-levelled case for issues such as representation of women, loneliness, mental health, providing more than one pin drop moment to give us all pause for thought on the consequences of dashed dreams.
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