I suppose many people, me included, conjure up a young Maggie Smith whenever The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is mentioned, so iconic was she as the free spirited and highly entertaining Scottish teacher in the 1969 movie adaptation of Muriel Sparke’s novel. One wonders if Lia Williams felt the same before embarking on inhabiting the role herself. And inhabit she surely does. So much so in fact that she has more than made the part her own.
Dressed from top to toe in figure hugging red (and then green after the interval) Williams seductively purrs each line in a soft Edinburgh accent. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of her gang? Certainly not her impressionable young girl pupils, used as they have been to the strict disciplinarianism instilled at Marcia Blaine School by headmistress Miss Mackay (Sylvestra Le Touzel). Suddenly they’re in the thrall of a radical teacher who wants them to enjoy freedom of speech whilst being taught the delights of love, beauty and, more disturbingly, Mussolini. Miss Brodie’s mantra is ‘give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life’. To this end she picks her favourite pupils, or crème de la crème, to be part of her clique, ensuring loyalty and worship in equal measure. Unfortunately, Sandy (an excellent Rona Morison), her star pupil isn’t entirely hooked, caught as she is between fascination and horror at this new teacher’s radical methods.
And it is Sandy that ultimately brings about the fall of Miss Jean Brodie. Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler alert as David Harrower’s adaptation flits between the girl’s school days in the 1930’s and 1947, the day before Sandy becomes a fully-fledged nun. She is being interviewed by a journalist (Kit Young) who wants to discover why, having written a successful book, she has chosen this particular journey. Thus, it is her recollections that steer the production back and forth in time.
One of the most striking aspects of Lia William’s flawless performance is her ability to show the complexity of Brodie. Thanks to her portrayal, our feelings for this amusing yet ultimately tragic figure are, as Muriel Spark intended, totally ambivalent. Veering between splendour and ludicrousness, strength and fragility, Williams’s Brodie is never one dimensional, and the subdued woman riddled with cancer at the end of the play bears no resemblance to her vibrant younger self. Despite her theoretical notions of romance, Brodie fails miserably when it comes to the practicalities. She has the attention of two male teachers, Mr. Lowther (Angus Wright) the reserved choir master and Teddy Lloyd (Edward Macliam) the louche art master, but they both fail to win her heart. More than able to extol the virtues of the notion of love, it’s quite another to actually practice what she preaches.
Although the accolades are mostly reserved for Lia Williams, praise must also be bestowed on the other members of the cast. Rona Morison not only shows us that her highly intelligent Sandy is constantly surveying Brodie but that she has an underlying coldness, even ruthlessness. Nicola Coughlan perfectly captures the neediness and desperation of her character, Joyce and Angus Wright is perfect as the diffident Mr. Lowther. Sylvestra Le Touzel also deserves a mention. Her buttoned up Miss Mackay is the archetypal old-fashioned headmistress, the exact opposite of Miss Brodie.
There is only one criticism in what is otherwise a pitch perfect production by Polly Findlay. Why is it necessary to sit several of the stall’s audience in the uncomfortable wooden classroom chairs? Despite the atmospheric bell ringing summoning the girls to classes and nuns to cloisters, Lizzie Clachan’s design doesn’t necessarily resemble either a nunnery or 1930’s school room. Apart from the aforementioned chairs, it is far too modern.