A Prime Performance

Rating: 5

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

by Georgina Brown

‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life,’ purrs Lia Williams’ breathy, breath- takingly glamorous Jean Brodie. She breezes into the classroom in a sharply cut, shapely scarlet dress and matching high heels. Her hair is a strawberry blonde mass of bobbed curls. she looks fabulous and she knows it. no wonder no one at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh is immune to her charisma – except headmistress Miss Mackay, played by Sylvester le Touzel, solid, grey and matronly in every sense. As Miss Brodie says, ‘I am cashmere to Miss Mackay’s granite.’

Cashmere certainly, in Polly Findlay’s assured, unflashy revival, but not at all soft. Miss Brodie thinks it ‘uncouth’ for her chosen ‘set’ of 10-year-old girls to put their hands up in class and tells them it is ‘vulgar’ to open a window more than six inches. She can be bitingly funny, wincing at Miss Mackay’s inelegant expressions: ‘syntax has no friend in Miss Mackay.’ Her educational methods are indeed ‘of a different hue’ from other teachers. She commands her 10-year-olds to shut their maths books and instead beguiles them with tales of meeting the pope while on holiday in Italy (‘I looked magnificent’), instructs them about Italy's greatest artist – ‘Giotto, my favourite’ – and shares with them her romance with Hugh, her ‘true love’ who died in the Great War. At school, they see for themselves her intoxicating effect on the dishy art teacher and on the quiet, shy music master (Angus Wright), both of whom she brings in to introduce the girls to arty extracurricular ideas. On Saturdays she invites her girls to her house for sherry and Amaretti biscuits.

Lia Williams powerfully and perfectly captures the complexity of Muriel sharp’s marvellous creation. She is both wonderfully comic and pitiably tragic. Romantic, passionate, non- conformist, she is a breath of fresh air in repressed, small-minded, dour Edinburgh in the 1930s. But she is immensely flawed, manipulative and misguided. Fatally so, in the case of Joyce Emily, one of her most impressionable girls.

Playwright David Harrower imposes a neat dramatic structure, beginning with a young reporter interviewing sandy, one of Miss Brodie’s favourites, who has written a bestseller dedicated to a mysterious ‘J’. Sandy’s memories summon the Brodie set in their gymslips and follow them through their teens when one of the girls, believing Miss Brodie has gone too far, betrays her. A beloved classic gets the staging it deserves. The effect is revelatory. This is the prime of Miss Lia Williams – and not to be missed.

Until 28 July at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2H: 020-3282 3808, www.donmarwarehouse.com