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Posts Tagged ‘Phyllida Lloyd’

This is the most famous of Muriel Spark’s twenty-two novels, her 6th, published in 1961, which was on stage within five years, on film within eight and a TV series ten years after that. Last seen on stage in London twenty years ago, at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre in a production by Phyllida Lloyd starring Fiona Shaw, this is a new version by Scottish playwright David Harrower. Though he’s done a lot of adaptations, he seemed an odd choice, but as it turns out he’s taken an interesting, fresh look.

Set in the thirties in a private girls school in Edinburgh, teacher Jean Brodie’s determination to teach her girls about life sets her on a collision course with Miss Mackay’s strict adherence to the curriculum. She treats them like friends, telling them about her relationships and her experiences, inviting them to her home. They are more like followers than pupils. At first it all seems mildly subversive and rather charming, until you realise how much control she exerts, her attempts to make choices for and mould her girls, not forgetting her fascist leanings. There is a dalliance with married art teacher Mr Lloyd and a long relationship with music teacher Mr Lowther, whose proposal she spurns. She is eventually betrayed and is forced to leave the school. It’s often very funny, but at times it’s sinister and dark too.

It’s told partly in flashback from post-war scenes where one of the girls, who went to Oxford and published a memoir, is interviewed by a journalist just before she enters a convent, and I’m not sure this worked that well or if was really necessary in telling the story. They’ve put in a middle aisle and swapped the front two rows of the stalls for wooden school chairs, which I’m also not sure is entirely necessary. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble to create a partly glazed back wall and ceiling, yet Lizzie Clachan’s design still seems to be missing something. I did love the use of bells, though, which emphasise both the school setting and the period.

If you need only one reason to see Polly Findlay’s revival it’s Lia Williams brilliant performance. She makes the role her own, delightful in her opinionated rebelliousness but ultimately transformed into a tragic figure. I’ve long admired her work, but this is a career high. In a fine supporting cast, Rona Morrison is terrific as Sandy, who sees the negatives in Brodie’s approach, and Sylvestra Le Touzel provides the contrasting sternness of Miss Mackay.

Good to see it on stage again, and warmly recommended.

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I’m surprised that there’s been little or no mention that this is the second Tina Turner jukebox musical, the first just six years ago, transferring from Hackney Empire to the Savoy Theatre for a short summer run (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/soul-sister). The previous one had much to enjoy, but this is on another level altogether. Director Phyllida Lloyd, who virtually invented the modern day jukebox musical with Mamma Mia, seen in 40 countries, still running in London after 19 years, now almost next door to this, returns with what might be its pinnacle.

Like those other great jukebox musicals – Jersey Boys, Sunny Afternoon & Beautiful – it’s biographical. Tina’s story begins in her childhood church in Tennessee with a brilliant gospel version of Nutbush City Limits. She’s abandoned by her mum, then her dad, and lives with her grandma until her death, after which she goes to live with her mother and sister in St. Louis. Here she meets Ike and so begins the years of success, and abuse. When she finally plucks up the courage to leave him, he continues to exert control over her repertoire and she ends up lost and broke in Las Vegas. Her only hope is new material, and she finds that by following young Aussie Roger Davies to London. The rest, as they say, is history.

Katori Hall has made a great job of telling the story through her excellent book and the production oozes quality in every department, from Anthony van Laast’s choreography, recreating some of Tina’s somewhat quirky moves, Mark Thompson’s designs, Bruno Poet’s lighting and Nevin Steinberg’s sound to Tom Kelly’s terrific band. The show ends with the now customary mini-concert, allowing the audience to indulge in the singing and dancing they’ve been suppressing for 2.5 hours, during which there was a lovely moment when Tina duets with her childhood self.

Adrienne Warren is the embodiment of Tina in a sensational performance; she has the same extraordinary audience contact Tina had. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who I last saw as Laertes in Hamlet (!) is a revelation as Ike, though he did veer towards caricature occasionally. In a superb supporting cast, I really liked Ryan O’Donnell as Davies, Madeline Appiah as Tina’s mum and Lorna Gayle as grandma.

A show that lives up to the hype, and more.

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