Miss Brodie is a paradox – magnificent and ridiculous, naïve and dangerous in equal measure. She’s a character you laugh with (and she is very witty) and laugh at, also in equal measure. It is, in fact, a very funny evening, though one that is filled with tragedies, great and small. But, of course, you know Miss Brodie already. You may go in fearing the long shadow of Maggie Smith (and many other earlier Miss Brodies) but Lia Williams dominates the stage with the softest – as she would have it, most cashmere – of voices. It is a fine production by Polly Findlay based on David Harrower’s new reading of Muriel Spark’s novel and set on a grey stage where girls (and nuns) are summoned by bells, the only splash of colour being Miss Brodie herself.
Miss Brodie’s powers of persuasion know no bounds and, at Edinburgh’s Marcia Blaine School in the 1930s, she creates in the minds of her ten-year-old pupils an image of who they must become. These are Miss Brodie’s chosen few, her ‘’crème de la crème”, who come to her flat for sherry and inspiration, caught in their teacher’s glamour. So Sandy will be a writer (or possibly a spy); Jenny, the great beauty, will be an equally great actress, the next Sybil Thorndyke; and, most dangerously, Joyce Emily, the outsider, will become a heroine.
Nicola Coughlan’s Joyce Emily breaks your heart as the girl who wants to be noticed by her charismatic teacher. And Rona Morison is an impressive Sandy whose role is central to David Harrower’s new adaptation. Much of the action is seen in flashback through Sandy’s eyes, told to a journalist who has read her recently published book on psychology and come to interview her as she is about to take her final vows as a nun. Harrower also lets slip comparatively early that it is Sandy, Miss Brodie’s favourite, who betrays her.
This doesn’t spoil the drama. The dialogue – especially Miss Brodie’s – is full of wit and Lia Williams revels in it. She can ridicule her authoritarian headmistress (a superb Sylvestra Le Touzel) with a languid “Mrs Mackay thinks to intimidate me with quarter hours” and dazzle her students with risqué talk of Italian summers, politics (she is all for Mussolini), art and their own futures. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine forever,” Miss Brodie tells us – and for a while it looks as if she’s right.
Gradually, though, the girls drift away from her. Grace is disappointed when Miss Brodie seems merely bored by her prefectship. Jenny is devastated when she fails to get the lead in the school play that her teacher had told her was clearly hers for the taking. And Sandy is horrified by Jean Brodie’s part in Joyce Emily’s fatal adventure.
All of the girls are good but it is inevitably Lia Williams’s night. She glitters across the stage in scarlet or emerald, all strawberry blonde hair and fluttering hands. She beguiles both the shy music teacher (Angus Wright on fine form) and the libidinous art teacher (Edward Macliam with a gleam in his eye) but it is her mouldable girls who are her real, terrible passion.
That becomes even clearer at the end when a paler, faded Miss Brodie, dying with cancer, is visited one last time by Sandy. “I am dying because of what you did!” she cries in an awful moment of neediness and emotional blackmail. She recalls her ancestor, a cabinetmaker who was hung on a gibbet of his own design – a fate not dissimilar to her own. This is a Miss Jean Brodie no longer in her prime and, despite the terrible havoc she has wrought, as she brings out her memories, we are mesmerised and as beguiled as ever.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse until 28 July 2018. Box office: 020 3282 3808 For more information, visit www.donmarwarehouse.com.