Lia Williams’ incarnation of Muriel Spark’s Jean Brodie is brilliantly vivid. She’s jittery, watchful, amused, brittle, slim as a wand and always poised as if about to take startled flight, dressed in a series of gorgeous hip-hugging gowns with hair so artfully sculpted you fear it might snap.
Williams follows in the footsteps of Vanessa Redgrave, who first played the role of the dangerously charismatic teacher on stage in 1966, and of Maggie Smith and Geraldine McEwan, who immortalised her on film and television, but she makes the part triumphantly her own. Her performance is the main draw in a staging that marks the centenary of Spark’s birth. However, although David Harrower’s adaptation is deft and Polly Findlay’s production lively and well cast (almost) throughout, you come out of the story thinking: Oh, was that it?
At a girls’ school in 1930s Edinburgh, Miss Brodie sets out to open the minds of a six-strong, self-chosen set of pupils. She talks to them about love and art and European travel and, as they get older, doses them with sherry. Initially her eccentric approach seems preferable to the Calvinist attitudes of Sylvestra Le Touzel’s headmistress Miss Mackay. Less so, however, when she starts to indoctrinate them in the virtues of Italian fascism and to use one of their number – clever, wary Sandy (Rona Morrison) – as a proxy to resolve her own thwarted love life.
It is a tangle of hormones, repression, yearning and loss, where the missing arm of the much-desired art master Teddy Lloyd stands for the wider loss of life in the First World War (including Brodie’s supposed fiancé, if indeed he existed) and the loss of innocence. Lloyd is played by Edward MacLiam with a weird, staring intensity that jars in comparison to the naturalism of the fine young actors playing the girls, and the superbly understated Angus Wright as Brodie’s thwarted suitor, Gordon Lowther. The love triangle looks desperately overwrought. The "betrayal" of Miss Brodie by one of "her" girls is trite. And the framing device – of Sandy talking to a journalist about a book she has written about the affair, before renouncing the world and entering a convent – is downright silly.
Maybe I’m viewing this through too-contemporary eyes, or maybe the show doesn’t evoke the 30s assertively enough. Or maybe what is inferred or subtextual in a novel is coarsened on stage. Maybe one should return to Spark’s book. Findlay’s staging is worth it for Williams’ performance, but otherwise I fear Miss Brodie may be past her prime.