Edinburgh Fringe 2009
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Royal & Derngate, Northampton and Assembly
Venue: Assembly Hall
Festival: Edinburgh Fringe
Jay Presson Allan’s excellent adaptation of Muriel Spark’s much-loved Edinburgh-based novel tells the story of Miss Jean Brodie, a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls who takes an enigmatic approach to the education of her socially selected ‘set’ of girls. Following the formative schooldays of four of her precocious pupils in the 1930s, the play also offer insight into the enduring impact Miss Jean Brodie’s teaching on the rest of their lives. There’s no great originality here, but a strong script and good performances ensure that this is safe bet if you’re looking for a quality festival show.
Miss Jean Brodie must be one of the most intriguing characters in literature. Muriel Spark’s compact novel gives a vivid impression of a vibrant woman – yet seen through the eyes of her pupils, the idiosyncratic teacher still remains something of a mystery. Fortunately, between Allan’s accomplished adaptationt, solid direction from Laurie Sansom, and a lead actress, Anna Francolini, who is well up to the tough task of portraying her, this show has as its beating heart a terrific portrayal Miss Brodie that finds room for all her contradictions and complexity.
Francolini’s Brodie captures the dynamism – and the danger – of the schoolteacher, who over the course of two hours morphs from inspiring idol for her young charges, to a manipulative and destructive force. Miss Brodie, we know, would absolutely own whatever space she was in, in full control of her classroom, and Francolini has an equivalently powerful stage presence, commanding the girls’ – and the audience’s – rapt attention.
There is a bird-like quality to her performance: the bright, darting eyes, a rather hard expression, jutting beaked nose, an alert, upright presence, and just a glimmer a brittle fragility. Under her armour of brightly coloured suits and dresses, this hint of vulnerability offers a physical correlative for the loneliness conveyed in her repeated (and increasingly hollow) declaration that she is a woman in her ‘prime’. She’s also very funny, with a dry deadpan delivery that prompts frequent bursts of laughter.
The supporting cast excels too. While the opening section, when Miss Brodie’s four favourite pupils (her ‘crème de la crème’) are at their youngest does suffer from an excessive enthusiasm that seems to characterise an awful lot of ‘grown-ups playing children’ acting, this is just a small quibble. For the four actors all skilfully show their characters’ rather premature transitions from childhood innocence to teenage immersion in Miss Brodie’s complex, sexualised adult world, and the damaged adults they later become.
Nicola Jo Cully plays Monica, all long-limbed and gawky, and is particularly good as a pre-teen, capturing grotesquely a revolted fascination with ‘committing sex’, her face contorting in both horror and delight at the idea of Miss Brodie’s affairs.
Natalie McConnon plays Sandy, Miss Brodie’s confidant who she declares has ‘insight’. McConnon portrays well Sandy’s internal conflict as she grows and – making use of that much lauded ‘insight’ – begins to see through Miss Brodie’s charms.
Anneika Rose perhaps has the hardest role, and the only one that doesn’t quite work; her character Mary, the shy and stuttering dunce of the group, ultimately plays a pivotal role in Miss Brodie’s fate, yet it feels a little underwritten.
Clearly meant to be sympathetic, the audience is never given the chance to learn to love her, which rather weakened some later plot developments.
This play captures the novel’s blending of the personal and the political. From the first we see that Miss Brodie inspires – or demands – great loyalty in her pupils, but as the decade roles on, her leadership becomes dictatorship. The military-style snare drumming that accompanies Miss Brodie’s marshalling of her girls gradually becomes more sinister, more apt, as we see the extent of Miss Brodie’s fondness of fascism. Sansom, with movement director Steve Kirkham, stages this physically in the battle-ground of the school – the girls become troops, Brodie a rhetoric-spouting dictator, and pupils’ arms shoot up in the air as if they were saluting, not offering an answer to a teacher’s question.
The play is punctuated with other lively movement scenes – a walk to an art gallery spins with umbrellas, and gym class becomes dance with picture frames. These stylised moments offer a shift in gear, but also resonate with character tensions and plot developments. Set changes are also used to allow the young characters a little release, some schoolgirl exuberance.
The final scenes of the production lag a little, dwelling perhaps too emphatically on just what impact Miss Brodie had on the lives of these girls, the actors switching between their youthful and older selves. But it also leaves the audience with mixed emotions. Like the girls, we can see through Miss Brodie’s manipulative and damaging machinations – yet the production also creates a necessary fascination and fondness for her and you cannot help but feel moved even at her self-martyring final moments.