Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Child's play enlivens girls' classic from the cloisters

First Night: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie National Theatre London
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The Independent Online
YOU ONLY have to watch St Trinian's to know that there is more to girls school stories than Enid Blyton.

The National Theatre had done its bit for the genre by staging Sarah Daniel's Neaptide, Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour and now it has turned its attention to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Jay Presson Allen turned her own doggedly faithful stage adaptation into a film but neither version could hold a candle to Muriel Spark's matchlessly spry novel about a dangerously influential teacher in the Edinburgh of the Thirties who manipulates her girls. The play has, none the less, done decent service - revived in the West End just four year ago - but for Phyllida Lloyd's extraordinary new production, Allen has substantially revised it. The results of their collaboration are truly remarkable.

The prosaic framing device of a reporter inviting Sister Helene to talk about her school days has been scrapped. Better still, Allen and Lloyd have re-thought everything, cutting over-explanatory dialogue and entire scenes. Lloyd has also done away with naturalism.

She and the Huntley Muir design team adopt bold colours and visual metaphors, with vast wall frames of climbing bars doubling as the grille through which Sister Helene speaks, vividly conjuring the cloistered atmosphere of school and nunnery. She also pulls off a master-stroke by using children to create the choral and string music which suffuses the production.

But, and it is a big but, it is not just the schoolgirls who are in thrall to their leader: the production is too. From the second Fiona Shaw swaggers on, hand on hip, it is clear she is taking the high spirited route.

Teddy (played by the excellent Nicholas Le Prevost) the art master who loves her describes her as "the only sex-bestirred object in this stony pile" and he is right.

This Miss Brodie toys with everyone and trumpets her delusions from the rooftops. As a comic turn, it is ludicrously enjoyable but it is impossible to believe that this free-spirited woman has been teaching at such a traditional school for more than five minutes.

For all her talk, we need to see her deeply conservative streak or else her Fascism makes no sense.

As Oscar Wilde wrote: "Each man kills the thing he loves ... the coward does it with a kiss." This is precisely what Lloyd has the tearful Sister Helene do at the moment of her betrayal, an action prefigured in the opening tableau where the nuns seated all along a table are suddenly transformed into the Brodie girls and then, in a flash, into the figures of the Last Supper.

Moments like these cast a tremendous spell. A shame that in this of all plays the truth is so compromised by the wilfulness of the central performance.