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|A CurtainUp Review
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
By Sue Kriesman
This play has been taken from the excellent novel by Muriel Spark and adapted into what I guessed would be a theatrical feast of a play by the extraordinary skills of Jay Presson Allen - famous, to me, for the screenplay of the brilliant Cabaret.
In the programme (which is often a more interesting one than most theatres have, and certainly is this time) there is an article about the music of the National Theatre which is worth reading. It isclear that in this play the music blends so completely with the action that it is an integral part of it - so much so that I felt that the music man should have been up there taking the applause at the final curtain.
The story is well known through its film adaptation and previous stage productions. To refresh your memory:. An inspirational school-teacher in Edinburgh has her own methods of teaching, much of which relies on "taking a child in her impressionable years and making her mine for ever." Full of ego and pep, she slants the teaching of her little team of "creme-de-la-creme gels" (she refers to the others scornfully as the corps de ballet) towards Art, Truth and Beauty in her own fascinating and selfish way, neglecting such things as fairness, spelling and the nine-times tables. The head-mistress, a difficult part played with dignity and restraint by Annette Badland, is on to her suspected immorality with two of the teachers but needs proof. Careless of the feelings of the growing girls as they turn towards womanhood, she goes too far.
I don't want to spoil the rich plot for you, but the rising facism of the nineteen-thirties is an essential element of the play - and is betrayed by one of her very own "gels." But which one? She never finds out.
The staging of this school story is brilliant. That first scene is unforgettable and the audience creases up --the laughter doubling as those who don't quite get it are informed by those who do! Using the staff and pupils as stagehands really works this time, as they move the gym-bars, the desks and the tables to represent both at school and in the convent all the scenes of the play. (I must say the set designers' ideas with drapes must have been an enormous saving for them!)
The fun of the story zings along, bound up with the more serious aspects of the Catholic faith, the power of education, loneliness, love and sex, rivalry, pride and betrayal. The acting is of such a high degree I heard someone behind me say "they aren't like the usual run of actors, are they." A great compliment, that. Miss Jean Brodie wasn't so much played by the great Fiona Shaw, but inhabited by her. She was superb - never once throwing herself about in this exceedingly central role. You could just see how generous she was to act with -- the young 'gels' were marvellously gauche and knowing by turns, potential Lolitas stirred up by the lonely longings of their crush-worthy teacher. Susannah Wise played Sandy with a mature and very easy manner that was so likeable - Camilla Power (Jenny), on the other hand, looked good but didn't quite portray to us what Miss Brodie saw in her.
The Royal National Theatre maintains its standards remarkably. This is a fine play with fine ensemble acting but Fiona Shaw is surely "in her prime." Long may it last.
© Elyse Sommer, July 1998
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