Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Donmar

Featuring the prime of the most excellent Lia Williams, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an undoubted success for the Donmar Warehouse

“Miss Mackay thinks to intimidate me with quarter-hours”

Everyone has that teacher that they never forget. Sometimes it’s because they were brilliant, sometimes it’s because they bent the rules, sometimes it’s because they were so bloody-minded that they remain so unforgettable. For the selected few pupils of Edinburgh’s Marcia Blaine School for Girls who found themselves in the orbit of the entirely charismatic Miss Jean Brodie, it’s all three reasons at the same time that are destined to make her such an iconic figure in their schooling.

Based on the novel by Muriel Sparks, David Harrower’s new stage adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie not only marks the 100th anniversary year of Spark’s birth but provides a scorchingly fantastic opportunity for Lia Williams to inhabit the title role so fully as to sit proudly aside Maggie Smith’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1969 film. It’s a stunning piece of acting – elevated by stunning wig and costume work – that captures so much of that beguiling power that a teacher can possess.

Having selected her ‘set’, Miss Brodie delights in flaunting the strict rule of headmistress Miss Mackay and her curriculum, opting instead to explore her twin passions of art history and fascist rulers like Franco and Mussolini. And as she flirts with both music teacher Mr Lowther and art tutor Mr Lloyd, a sense of danger creeps into her interactions with everyone at the school. This is highlighted by Harrower’s framing device which sees one of those former pupils Sandy, now a novelist, being interviewed about her past.   

Polly Findlay’s production for the Donmar Warehouse really is excellent. As already mentioned, Williams is perfectly cast as she hovers like the most elegant of butterflies around her charges yet flinches aghast at any display of true emotion. Rona Morison is powerful as Sandy, the most intelligent of the pupils and the one who comes closest to seeing Miss Brodie for who she really is. There’s also strong work from Nicola Coughlan’s Joyce, stuck on the outside of the select few, Angus Wright’s kindly music teacher, and Sylvestra Le Touzel  as the officious Miss Mackay.

Lizzie Clachan’s austere design of bells and wooden chairs has a penitentiary grace to it, with a neat flourish of Charles Rennie Mackintosh inspiration to remind us just where we are, and Charles Balfour’s lighting helps to navigate flashes from past to present with a real fluidity. Dramatically, there may not be a huge amount that happens here but so beautifully realised is The Prime of Jean Brodie, that this is one classroom you’ll yearn to stay in long after the bell has rung for hometime.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is booking at the Donmar Warehouse until 28th July

This review was originally written for LondonTheatre1

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