The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Posted by Laurence Green

An impressive central performance from Lia Williams as the calculated, manipulative school teacher in this ultimately uninspiring reworking of the classic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The bells are ringing at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls ushering pupils into class and nuns into the cloister. Yes, you’ve guessed it, we’re back in 1930s Edinburgh for the stage adaptation of Muriel Spark’s much lauded 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Donmar Warehouse) by Daniel Harrower.

It is here that the flamboyant teacher Miss Jean Brodie presides over her ‘set’, her chosen few. In return for their absolute devotion, Miss Brodie will provide an education far beyond the confines of the curriculum. Her great claim “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she’s mine for life” feels dangerously double-edged. Conservative headmistress Miss Mackay is keen to be rid of her, but Brodie has support from two admirers; strait-laced music teacher Mr Lowther and dashing-but-married-art teacher Mr Lloyd. However it is one of her own girls who will come to “betray” her.

This version may not measure up to the 1969 film with Maggie Smith’s Oscar-winning performance in the title role. But the production has its own notes of furtiveness and witty elegance and manages to conjure up the spartan atmosphere of a school run with painstaking precision - a world of hard chairs and insistently tolling bells. A new sub plot emerges in the stage version following the friendship between the painfully needy Joyce Emily and the more assured Sandy, the latter abandoning her pal when she becomes one of Miss Brodie’s “crème de la crème”. But what considerably weakens the production is the continual intrusion of a future timeline in which a journalist is sent to interview the grown-up Sandy, now on the path to becoming a nun, but also the author of a psychology best seller. As a result of moving back and forth in time, the play seems fractured and the emotional impact reduced, although it still manages to probe ideas of faith, manipulation and betrayal.

Director Polly Findlay coaxes an impressive central performance from Lia Williams, who brings a combination of charisma and slippery insecurity, igniting her students’ interest in both art history and fashion, while treading a delicate path through the thickets of romantic intrigue. Indeed her Brodie is calculated artifice incarnate, dressed head to toe in scarlet, a towering strawberry blonde wig a veneer of coyness and a sensual purr that draws the listener close. Rona Morison deserves equal praise as Sandy, the perceptive star pupil, fascinated and horrified by Miss Brodie. There’s also sterling work from Nicola Coughlan as Sandy’s classmate Joyce and Angus Wright as bashful music master Mr Lowther.

In short then, an entertaining evening in the theatre but missing that particular spark that made the movie such a memorable experience.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Box office: 020 3282 3808

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