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A CurtainUp London Review
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

"Goodness, Truth and Beauty." — Miss Brodie
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Lia Williams as Miss Brodie with cast (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie went to film in 1969 with Maggie Smith as the free-spirited Scottish teacher known for her girls being "the crème de la crème". The film came after Vanessa Redgrave played the part onstage in London in 1966. In 1998 Fiona Shaw played Miss Brodie at the National and Geraldine McEwan starred in a television series in the late 1970s.

As I watched it in 2018 I was reminded of Alan Bennett's The History Boys when an unconventional teacher inspires a generation of sixth form boys. While Hector in The History Boys has an unacceptable trait, Miss Brodie (Lia Williams) has an admiration for Mussolini. She comments that trains in Germany and Austria seem well organised, a point not wasted on the current British audience who have been experiencing the trials of cancelled rail services after new timetables were introduced.

However there is a big difference between The History Boys and Miss Brodie's girls, in as far that few of them will achieve academic success, and the one that does chooses another path. We know from the beginning of the play, set in 1947 in Harrower's adaptation when star pupil Sandy (Rona Morrison) now aged 25 is being interviewed by journalist (Kit Young) because of her book about her schooldays and tells us that she is to be ordained as a nun in the next 24 hours.

The first half of the play is the Miss Jean Brodie we all know. From the moment when Lia Williams purrs, "Good morning girls!" in her refined Scottish accent we know we are in for a treat from this accomplished actor. We are slightly shocked to discover that Miss Brodie's class of girls who meet for their special lesson are just 11 years old, in view of the explicit material she chooses to discuss with them.

Angus Wright is reunited with Lia Williams after their pairing as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra in the Oresteia but here he plays the self effacing music teacher and Mummy's Boy, Gordon Lowther whom Miss Brodie strings along. Teddy Lloyd (Edward MacLiam), the art teacher, married with children into double figures seems to be the man she would have fallen for.

What goes against the grain is that free-thinking Miss Brodie has very set ideas on what her girls will be good at and what they will become. Joyce Emily is the one excluded from Miss Brodie's group who goes on to travel to Spain to support the Republicans despite Miss Brodie's insistence that Joyce Emily would be fighting for Franco's Fascists.

Muriel Spark's prose is full of witticisms and the first half is decidedly pleasurable. In the second half comes Miss Brodie's betrayal to the ever vigilant head Miss Mackay (Sylvestra Le Touzel) who fails to catch out Miss Brodie and we see Miss Brodie past her prime with its sadness and her illness.

Polly Findlay gets tip top performances from her cast of girls called upon to play such a wide age range with Helena Wilson as Jenny, the one destined to be an actress like Sybil Thorndike and Rona Morrison as Sandy who is full of complexity. Lizzie Clachan's set conveys well both the cloister of the nunnery and the Edinburgh school Marcia Blaine. The music of bells delineates the scene changes whether they are the school bell or the nunnery bell.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Written by Muriel Spark
Adapted by David Harrower
Directed by Polly Findlay
Starring: Rona Morrison, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Lia Williams, Angus Wright, Nicola Couglan, Helena Wilson, Edward MacLiam, Kit Young
With: Grace Saif, Emma Hindle
Design: Lizzie Clachan
Sound Design: Paul Arditti
Lighting Design: Charles Balfour
Composer: Marc Tritschler
Movement: Jonathan Goddard
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 3282 3808
Booking to 28th July 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 14th June 2018 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX (Tube: Covent Garden)
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