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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie review at Donmar Warehouse – ‘beautifully acted’

Lia Williams and the cast of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar Warehouse, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Most of us know her, with her crisp Morningside accent, her lemony aphorisms and her elegant eccentricity, from Maggie Smith’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1969 film.

Now Jean Brodie is back, in a new adaptation of Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel by David Harrower, directed by Polly Findlay, and Lia Williams unquestionably makes the role her own. Her Jean is played with crystalline precision and a piercing suggestion of tormenting inner demons – and yet she remains, essentially, an enigma.

Spark’s famous creation is a woman who presents to the world not so much a personality, but a carefully curated collection of tics, postures, passions and opinions, some of them decidedly misguided or even perverse. Williams is absorbing and glitteringly charismatic, but the production never quite overcomes a nagging sense of inconsequentiality.

Harrower’s adaptation views the story through the deceptive lens of time and memory. In an over-neat framing device, we find Rona Morison’s Sandy, once Miss Brodie’s pet pupil at Edinburgh’s Marcia Blaine School for Girls, as an adult, and a published author as well as a novice nun. In an abbey that recalls the confining walls of her 1930s schooldays, where maverick Miss Brodie’s class offered a sip of intoxicating freedom, she gives an interview about her book to an eager young journalist.

Lizzie Clachan’s design, with its grey stone walls and clanging bells, implies that Sandy’s Roman Catholicism is a prison as well as a refuge, just as the education system was for Jean – and there is more than a little kinship between the women, each with a fierce hunger that her circumscribed life cannot sate. But if Williams is seductively glamorous – with a diamond-bright dazzle and angularity in precisely tailored crimson or emerald-green and spiky heels – she is also disturbingly needy.

She may have grand ambitions for her girls, but there’s a neurotic, desperate note to her dedication, a restless search for a focus for her own fervour, which finds a troubling outlet in her enthusiasm for Mussolini and Fascism. Towards the play’s bleak conclusion, her allure falling away, she’s desolate and vampiric.

As for the men between whom this steel butterfly flutters, Angus Wright is poignant as the solid, musical Mr Lowther, whom she can’t quite bring herself to love, while Edward MacLiam as the more sexually exciting, war-maimed, adulterous art teacher Mr Lloyd manages pathos as well as predatory opportunism. Sandy’s schoolmates don’t emerge strongly enough as individuals, with the exception of Nicola Coughlan’s poignant, over-eager Joyce Emily, cruelly ostracised by the others in a manner that Jean, by excluding her from the inner circle tacitly encourages.

There is, without doubt, an astute evocation here of the complex emotional undercurrents of female-populated environments in a society built by men. But real dramatic impact remains elusive.

Lia Williams: ‘Acting is so fragile – you’re always close to falling off a cliff’

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Elegant adaptation of the well-loved novel that’s beautifully acted, but unsatisfying