The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
4 June 2018 – 28 July 2018
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie | Review
2018 marks the 100th year anniversary of the birth of the novelist Muriel Sparks, in David Harrower’s adaptation, the Donmar is transformed into the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, the Scottish private school where Jean Brodie rules and demands absolute loyalty. Set in two different time periods, Sandy Shaw, who has written a book on morals, dedicated to an unknown ‘J’ reflects on her school years with teacher Jean Brodie in the final hours before she is to take her vow of silence and become a sister.
The cast is truly stellar. As the eponymous Jean Brodie, Lia Williams is effervescent, lighting up the stage with her breathy Scots accent and her wide-eyed obsession with fantasy, romance and culture. I must confess that up till the beginning of 2018, Lia Williams was unknown to me, but her performance as the tragic Jean was enchanting, and it was not hard to imagine how her young “gerls” could become quite so infatuated with her. Maggie Smith need not fear, her performance as Jean Brodie is still the iconic go to, but Williams’ Brodie is equally as vivid, and equally as tragic. Make no mistake, Jean Brodie is pretty terrible, as both a teacher and a mentor, but Williams gives the role such empathy and pathos that even at her worst moments, you still find yourself willing to give her a second chance – and that says something given that, even after the terrible events that take place towards the end of the second half, she still supports the Fascist Mussolini.
The rest of the cast is equally powerful, Rona Morison as writer Sandy gives a masterclass in stillness, and whilst my eye was constantly trained on Williams, I regularly found myself glancing at Morison, just to see what she was thinking. The relationship between Jean and Sandy is the lynchpin on which the play hinges on, and the chemistry between the two actors is palpable. Nicola Coughlan is tragic as the desperately sad outsider Joyce Emily, who more than convinces as both an eleven-year-old and a sixteen-year-old. I found my heart was in my throat when poor Joyce attempted to give a copy of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Sandy, practically begging her to find better friends, and she was one of the few characters who I found went straight to the heart. Emma Hindle, Helena Wilson and Grace Saif, as the rest of the girls gave credible strong performances, steadily drifting away from Miss Brodie and finding their own independence, though these roles are immediately less showy than those of Jean, Sandy and Joyce and their stage time reflected that.
As the music teacher, Angus Wright gave a touching performance, so desperately in love with Jean, and fated to never end up with her. The scene where he hands her back her nightdress, thus ending the relationship could have been confrontational and cruel, but in Wright and William’s hands was instead sensitive, emotional and deeply sad. I could never quite get a handle on Edward MacLiam’s performance, unable to decide if he was in control of his own actions, or simply another person at the mercy of the flighty Miss Brodie. To decide where his motivation comes from perhaps reduces the character, who sits comfortably as the most morally grey character in the entire show, and I hesitate in saying much more, lest I tread into spoiler territory. I will say this much, he is certainly one to keep an eye on. Sylvestra Le Touzel is the foil of Miss Jean Brodie as Miss Mackay, but oh what a foil, biting and deeply set on rules, Le Touzel manages to make Miss Mackay funny on her own right and not just a simple bore set out to remove Miss Brodie from her position. The scenes in which she attempts to punish Brodie are both excruciating and hilarious as we watch Brodie run rings around Mackay (my favourite line “she seeks to intimidate me with her use of quarter hours”). As the unnamed journalist, Kit Young doesn’t have much to do, other than frame the pace of the action, and his character is merely a cypher for the action in the past. That’s not anything an actor can control of course, and a failure of the text, but I did think it was a shame he didn’t have more to do, given his previous powerhouse performance as Octavius in the Bridge Theatre’s Julius Ceaser.
David Harrower’s adaptation is dark, moments and mentions of death and war pepper the text, a class discussion of Miss Brodie’s dead fiancé is derailed by Joyce as she confesses her grandmother has passed away, Mussolini is an icon of Brodie’s and the civil war in Spain bubbles in the background. Yet at the same time, it is one of the funniest plays I have seen in a good while. Brodie’s put-downs are jaw-droppingly funny, blunt and savage to the bone – she does not hesitate in telling a girl that humour is not for her, and Miss Mackay is equally as witty and sharp. Harrower has stayed faithful to the material, not attempting to modernise but simply revelling in those casual comments that sit uncomfortably for a modern audience, I heard more than a few awkward titters when Miss Mackay declared that a virtuous woman is worth more than rubies. The transformation of the Donmar by Lizzie Clachan is simplistic but perfectly fitting with the bare bones of a school, characters carry wooden chairs and hold school books, bells ring in both the past and the present, and the sense of foreboding grows as the second act closes in. This is the first time Polly Findlay has returned to the Donmar since directing Limehouse and she takes full command of the cast, who work like a well-oiled machine. There are no line slips or cut-ins, no moments where the action lulls and the play gallops along flicking back and forth to the different time periods. There is no sense of confusion, everything is crystal clear, and the accents are perfectly poised, and yet when the tragic events take place, they still hit you like a train, so utterly predictable and so out of the blue at the same time. It is, in other words, a triumph.
Don’t be a fool, go and pull up a chair, and get to class. Miss Brodie is waiting after all, chalk in hand, and she does not suffer fools
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is currently playing at The Donmar Warehouse in Seven Dials until the 28th July 2018. To find out more or to book tickets visit: https://www.donmarwarehouse.com/production/6723/the-prime-of-miss-jean-brodie
Reviewer: Alice Foster
Photos: Manuel Harlan
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Director: Polly Findlay
Cast: Lia Williams, Rona Morison, Nicola Coughlan, Emma Hindle, Helena Wilson, Grace Saif, Angus Wright, Edward MacLiam, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Kit Young