views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Barons Court Theatre
4th March 2014


Katie McIvor, Juliette Power, Alana Ross and Lizzie Hiscott as Monica, Mary MacGregor, Sandy and Jenny

Photography supplied by Nadine's Window

Whether your school days were indeed the happiest of your life, or you spent most of them with your head down a toilet, the education system tends to leave some kind of permanent mark on all of us. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Sister Helena (Viv Creegor) recalls her days at Marica Blaine School for Girls to American journalist Mr Perry (Andrew Leishman), focusing on one teacher in particular - the unconventional and quite unforgettable Miss Jean Brodie (Kate Sandison).

Jay Presson Allen's stage adaptation is a lot more linear that Muriel Spark's 1961 novel, and there are only four girls singled out by Miss Brodie for special attention. There's Jenny (Lizzie Hiscott), the pretty one; Mary MacGregor (Juliette Power), the stupid one; Sandy (Alana Ross), the one with insight and Monica (Katie McIvor) - well, the other one. These girls are the "crème de la crème" for Miss Brodie, somewhat of a rebel, ignoring the Scottish curriculum in favour of imparting more exotic topics, teaching her girls about love and art. And yet, despite her complete disregard for authority, underlined by her battles with more traditional headmistress, Miss MacKay (Sue Parker-Nutley), she fundraises for Mussolini and speaks fondly of Hitler. Yes, that Hitler.

On one hand, Miss Brodie encourages the girls to think for themselves, but on the other, she tries to manipulate Jenny into having an affair with the art teacher, Teddy Lloyd (Tim Major), and to push Mary into literally fighting her battles for her. There's a lot to like about a woman in the 1930s who is strong enough to speak her own mind without compromise, but many of her actions cannot be condoned. She's an intriguing character, we can't define her as a hero, but equally, she's no villain.

The reason why the story endures is because Miss Brodie is such a complex character. Our opinion swings back and forth and by the end of the 120 minutes, we're still not sure what we make of her. When we first see Sandison on stage, she's a picture of composure and restraint, her clothes perfectly coordinated, her voice measured - not a word wasted nor hurried. Allen's dialogue is thin to the point where it might sound underwritten when spoken by anyone else, but it does work here, rounded off by Sandison's Edinburgh brogue. With such care taken by Sandison to establish her character as controlled and unwavering, in the moments where the veneer cracks, we do feel for her.

Kate Sandison as Miss Jean Brodie

Photography supplied by Nadine's Window

The love triangle between Miss Brodie, Teddy Lloyd and Gordon Lowther (Jack Govan) - the latter being another teacher, of course - hints at some of Miss Brodie's "passions", but really, it's her relationship with her girls which is most telling. Ross's portrayal of a young girl growing up quickly and questioning her role models is compelling, and creates some emotional scenes between her and Sandison.

Director Nadine Hanwell captures the complexities of Miss Brodie well, but on balance, keeps the production reasonably light. An affair between a pupil and a much older teacher, the rise of Fascism - some of the plot lines are full of scandal and horribly dark, but the overall tone of the piece doesn't reflect this. Hanwell doesn't dwell on the uncomfortable and moments of humour are well-received and keep the production from getting heavy.

Just as the writing is to the point and without fuss, designer Jean Christie take a minimalistic approach to the design. In most scenes, only a painting and a few chairs are used to dress the stage. Lighting designer Darion Marshall blends different coloured spotlights to create a stained glass effect and place Sister Helena in a convent, some decades on. It's very functional and helps switch periods with the minimum of fuss, helping to keep scene changes quick and sharp - all very Brodie.

Nadine's Window's staging of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie captures the original intent of the piece well. This isn't just a story about the downfall of one person, it's a thoughtful if overlong piece about the wider-reaching impact on others, and the dangerous ease with with a "young impressionable girl" can be moulded when entrusted into the wrong hands.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie opened on 18th February and runs until 9th March 2014 at Barons Court Theatre.

Nearest tube station: West Kensington (District)

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