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Review - 'The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie' at National Theatre 1998

The story concerns Jean Brodie, an eccentric Scottish teacher who instils her own passion for culture into a select group of pupils at the Marcia Blaine School. However, in return for her dedication and making them 'the crème de la crème', she expects their undivided loyalty. Miss Brodie, does not teach the lessons she is supposed to, instead she talks to her pupils about her holidays, cultural and political themes and encourages the girls to the view that Art is more important than science. She butts the schools strict status quo policy and is soon in conflict with the headmistress Miss Mackay, who does everything she can to get rid of her, but fails. Or rather that is until Miss Brodie is betrayed by one of her own disillusioned girls!

This production from the Royal National Theatre is a big disappointment as it fails to fully capture the atmosphere of its time and to explore the characters. Fiona Shaw has created her own style for the eccentric Jean Brodie which works fine, but is not as convincing as the last portrayal of Jean Brodie I saw played by Patricia Hodge at the Strand Theatre in 1995. Nevertheless, it is still a fine and strong performance. In fact it was her performance that saved the play from tediousness. The rest of the cast was adequate, but never quite convincing, but I put this down to the flighty direction, not their lack of acting ability. The confrontation scenes with 'Brodie' and 'Miss Mackay' lacks authenticity and depth, which never created the electrifying scenes I've seen in other productions. Annette Badland as 'Miss Mackay', did her best but it just did not work.

The stage design by Sue Huntley and Donna Muir does not work for this play. The atmosphere is completely lost on this big Lyttelton stage. The stage was almost bare most of the time with minimal props. I felt the play needed a more intimate setting, which would probably have given the drama more feeling.

The show has received favourable reviews from the popular press. NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Fiona's prime Miss Brodie shows there's still a spark" and goes on to say it is an "ingeniously staged production" which is "powered both by nostalgia and thoroughly modern technology". PETER HEPPLE of THE STAGE says "Shaw brings a lot of her own distinctive personality to the role of Jean Brodie, giving her a surprisingly sexy air..." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE of THE TIMES said "Maybe Shaw could do more to bring out the baffled grief of the broken Brodie, but her emphasis surely serves the play well."

It is always easy to criticise plays when one has seen other versions. You cannot help but compare, and this can side-track you from a fair view. This is not a bad production and I feel many people will enjoy it, particularly if they have not seen another stage version. However, for those that have seen the film and/or other stage productions then they are more likely to be disappointed with this one.

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