The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Donmar Warehouse, London ****

© Manuel Harlan, Lia Williams as Jean Brodie with her girls, the Brodie set...

© Manuel Harlan, Lia Williams as Jean Brodie with her girls, the Brodie set…

It’s interesting how Maggie Smith’s iconic 1969 performance as Edinburg teacher Jean Brodie has so stuck in people’s minds. Definitive in many ways, it was therefore brave of Josie Rourke to programme a revival.

Polly Findlay’s fine production, in David Harrower’s new adaptation, certainly justifies her decision.

In Harrower’s new adaptation, the tone is certainly more subdued than the film.

Finlay and Harrower seem much more concerned with a subtler, more complex and indeed elegiac reading of a character who ever since Muriel Spark created her in the early 1960s (the novel was first published in 1961 after having appeared in the New Yorker) has gripped the public imagination – maybe because a charismatic teacher and their influence on our lives has and will always have, such universal appeal.

Many of Jean Brodie’s favourite sayings indeed have now entered the English lexicon. `Putting old heads on young shoulders’; `Giotto, because he’s my favourite’, `la crème de la creme’, etc etc.

Indeed, such is the familiarity of audiences with these phrases, they wait with bated breath to hear how they will be delivered. Anticipation is all – and when Lia Williams as Miss Brodie, does deliver them, as with any new interpreter of a well loved phrase, she has to make it her own. This she does in a voice that often purrs with seduction rather than shooting from the hip, Maggie Smith style.

© Manuel Harlan, Lia Williams, a purring seductress...

© Manuel Harlan, Lia Williams, a purring seductress…

Lia Williams’ Miss Brodie is however no less a flamboyant figure when we first encounter her. Designer Lizzie Clachan dresses Williams in startling red/maroon which Williams, slim as a rake, sets off with an alabaster skin tone and eyebrows giving her a 1930s Merle Oberon appearance.

She cuts a dashing figure within the tight confines of Spark’s ficitional Marcia Blaine School for Girls in a society and city in which the tensions between Calvinist and Catholic faiths are in constant friction and steadily brought out by Findlay and Harrower – even to the extent of Jean Brodie’s two suitors.

© Manuel Harlan, Lia Williams as Miss Jean Brodie and Angus Wright as he upright suitor and music teacher colleague, Gordon Lowther

© Manuel Harlan, Lia Williams as Miss Jean Brodie and Angus Wright as he upright suitor and music teacher colleague, Gordon Lowther

Angus Wright’s music teacher, Gordon Crowther, is a perfectly judged embodiment of Edinburgh convention and Presbyterian restraint whilst Edward Macliam’s libidinous, married art teacher, Teddy Lloyd, would seem to conjure, for Miss Spark and Miss Brodie, the Catholic stereotype of steady procreation: nine children at the last count he tells Jean Brodie at one point. He bears a faint but discernible Irish accent.

The heart of the matter is, of course, Miss Brodie and her relationship with her `gerls’, the Brodie set and the school Head, Miss Mackay, a model of strict orthodoxy (Sylvestra Le Touzel). Harrower reframes the story within a flashback framework giving it an added air of mystery. A young journalist (Kit Young) has come to interview Sandy, about to enter a convent and take holy orders, on the book she has written about her school experience and Miss Brodie.

Dedicated to a `J’, who is this mysterious dedicatee, he asks `J’, for Jenny, or Joyce Emily, two of Miss Brodie’s brood?

It turns out to be neither. But set within the flashbacks and the constant sound of bells ringing – academic and ecclesiastic – the parallels between those two institutions is cleverly underlined.

Findlay’s finely tuned production is full of nuance and provides a singular, emotive finale in which responsibility, influence, life choices, aspiration and limitation are all beautifully conveyed within Miss Brodie herself and her relationship with her `gerls’. As the play darkens, suspicion as to exactly what Miss Brodie was asking of her pupils becomes ever more troubling and perplexing, as too her sense of her untouchability and divine mission.

A wonderful palette of shifting emotions and intentions, Williams is by turns magnetically mischievous, rebellious, devious, conventional, dangerous and ultimately tragically vulnerable. Rona Morrison as the novitiate writer conveys budding curiosity and a furious, damaged soul.

© Manuel Harlan, Edward MacLiam as Teddy Lloyd with Helena Wilson as Jenny, Miss Brodie's chosen one to be Mr Lloyd's lover...

© Manuel Harlan, Edward MacLiam as Teddy Lloyd with Helena Wilson as Jenny, Miss Brodie’s chosen one to be Mr Lloyd’s lover…

Helena Wilson as Jenny, Miss Brodie’s vicarious lover for Terry Lloyd, follows on from her unforgettable Donmar debut in The Lady from the Sea, with another delicately drawn portrayal. And there are lovely performances too from Grace Saif (Monica), Emma Hindle (Mary) and especially Nicola Coughlan as the susceptible Joyce Emily, encouraged by Miss Brodie to go and fight in Spain in the Civil War on the fascist side.

`Beauty, truth and goodness’, are Miss Brodie’s bywords, not `safety first’. But in the end, Miss Brodie herself is betrayed by the former. This production and perhaps Spark’s original intention becomes a moving elegy to those battalions of unmarried, `spinster’ teachers, caught between the wars, for whom teaching became not just a way of life but a vocation, their whole life.

A great revival then, giving, again, much food for thought. One caveat; I’d love to see a production that actually, as implied in Siân Reynolds’ fascinating programme note, gives a clue and sets the school and those girls in its social background. Based on Spark’s own Edinburgh experience at the James Gillespie’s High School, Reynolds describes the existing poverty and how the school became a `corporation grammar’ in 1929 – a `godsend to `parents of slender means’ and a path for girls to different lives.

The Brodie girls then are privileged not just in their being picked out by Miss Brodie but in their attendance at the school at all.

Back to the novel, I think.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
A new adaptation by David Harrower
Based on the novel by Muriel Spark


Journalist: Kit Young
Sandy: Rona Morrison
Miss Mackay: Sylvestra Le Touzel
Jean Brodie: Lia Williams
Gordon Lowther: Angus Wright
Monica: Grace Saif
Mary: Emma Hindle
Joyce Emily: Nicola Coughlan
Jenny: Helena Wilson
Teddy Lloyd: Edward Macliam

Director: Polly Findlay
Designer: Lizzie Clachan
Lighting Designer: Charles Balfour
Sound Designer: Michael Arditti
Composer: Marc Tritschler
Movement Director: Jonathan Goddard
Casting: Alastair Coomer CDG

Dialect Coach: Nia Lynn
Costume Supervisor: Joanna Coe

First perf of this production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London, June 4, 2018. Runs to July 28, 2018

Review published on this site, June 15, 2018