4 JULY 1998, Page 89


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (National) The Old Neighborhood (Duke of York's) How I Learned to Drive (Donmar Warehouse)

Star gazing

Sheridan Morley

Theatre in 1828? Terrible season, since you ask; what with the bear-baiting and the cock-fighting and all the cricket, not to mention the first ever World Cup, people just didn't seem to want to go to plays. Gammer Gurton was still giving everyone the needle, The Mousetrap was barely into first rehearsals, and then the wretched American tourists all stayed home sulking about the Boston Tea Party, and getting ready for the civil war.

Disastrous. Sometimes I wonder why people work in the theatre at all, especially as there are only four of them and two of those have just lost their subsidy because they put on plays insulting the Duke of Wellington. All the public wants to see is stars, and as Henry Irving will not be born for another decade and Sarah Bernhardt hasn't yet got her wooden leg, there were precious few of those around when needed. Generally things were very quiet along Shaftesbury Avenue, especially as they hadn't built any theatres there yet.

Circuses weren't doing too badly, and the Madhouse Tours had a good summer, laughing at loonies having now caught on in a big way, even with the Elephant Man only a forthcoming attraction. Half the Arts Council resigned after a note from the aforementioned Duke of Wellington saying he wasn't going to use tax revenue to sup- port yet another Edmund Kean Richard III which nobody wanted to see except a few periwigged elitist prats; so Kean went off in a huff (and a boat) to amaze America, where most actors were already getting shot on sight.

Theatrically, things were better abroad; in America, Andrew Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams, and a then very young Stephen Sondheim decided to exclude them both from Assassins as neither man- aged to get shot and there was still a long time to wait for Lincoln. The new Por- tuguese premier, Dom Miguel, announced state subsidy for flamenco dancers before himself going into the bottled beer busi- ness, and in France Boublil and Schonberg and their librettist Victor Hugo were already starting on Les Miserables. Musical- ly the big hit of the summer was the com- plete Rossini William Tell with Larry Adler already doubling on harmonica and con- certina; Hugo also had Les Orientales in the bestselling charts, but somehow they could never get the score right for that one; Andrew Lloyd Webber, still some years away from his peerage, said he would be trying to make it work in collaboration with the young W.S. Gilbert, Sullivan having gone off to watch the the cricket as usual.

Some theatre people wrote to the Daily Telegraph pointing out that the Wellington administration seemed far more interested in boots than arts, whereupon the Duke announced that he would be calling a meeting of anyone who had ever actually written a play, or appeared in one, to con- vene in the downstairs cloakroom at Down- ing Street at a date to be announced. Meantime the Duke felt that more cuts to the arts would be necessary if we were ever to intervene successfully in the war between Russia and Portugal, let alone that between the Turks and the Greeks which is what most people were doing, letting it alone I mean.

Macready announced his retirement to some of the greatest cheers ever heard in a London theatre, while the new arts minis- ter (a man who had lost both eyes and ears during the last Wellington campaign) sug- gested that just because Ibsen and Tolstoy and Dante Gabriel Rossetti had been born that year, there was no call for governmen- tal arts funding, indeed they were still refusing to pay the insurance claim on Shakespeare's Globe.

About 40 years later they repealed the Theatres Act, other playhouses came along and with them Shaw, Wilde, Coward, Ratti- gan and Ben Elton. The rest you know. Back to the future.

Why bother to revive The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? True, it does afford an actress in middle years one of the all-time great women's roles of modern theatre, but the National has not, at least hitherto, been either minded or funded to satisfy the egos of female players, pointing out, however rightly, that Shakespeare never wrote them a Queen Lear. Since it first appeared on the West End stage in 1966, I have seen Miss Brodie played there by Vanessa Redgrave, Anna Massey, Elizabeth Sellars and (only a couple of years ago) Patricia Hodge; on the wide screen I have seen Maggie Smith play her, and on television Geraldine McEwan in a long-running series. True, we have not yet had Brodie on ice or under water, but that can only be a matter of months; we shall also doubtless soon be told that it is high time we had a black Brodie, or maybe an oriental one, despite her unmistakable and quintessential Edinburgh Thirties setting.

But that still doesn't make it a great play, or even a very good one, and if the Nation- al is to start reviving old West End war- horses, I'd have been as happy if not happi- er to see them do Dial M for Murder or The Chalk Garden, or indeed anything that offers a good night for someone other than just the star. It is true too that Fiona Shaw is breath- taking in the title role, and because vast amounts of money and actors young and older have now been thrown at Jay Presson Allen's still-creaking adaptation of the clas- sic Muriel Spark novel, it does come up looking as good if not better than ever before. Allen has indeed revised her origi- nal script, something people have been begging her to do for years, so here we get more Spark than ever before; but this still remains relentlessly Goodbye Mrs Chips, the story of a schoolteacher too much in love with herself for her pupils' welfare; as a result one of them gets accidentally killed on the wrong side of the Spanish Civil war, another becomes a nun and a third a star actress, though in truth we never get told enough to care about any of their lives after school.

The two male-teacher roles are also still incredibly underwritten, and none of the rewrites solves that, any more than it solves the creakingly predictable outcome; the point about Brodie has always been that she becomes as dangerously fascist and charismatic a leader as any of her pre-war European heroes from Franco to Mussoli- ni, and therefore has to come to a bad end, what with expulsion from her orthodox school and then death from cancer. I wish I could care, or at least never again have to hear that line about putting old heads on young shoulders; Annette Badland is here so wildly and wonderfully miscast as the headmistress that the main joy of an elabo- rately pointless evening lies in working out how she was going to get through the next encounter with Brodie without descending into a wicked but welcome parody of Lau- rel and Hardy Go To Girls' School in drag.

This time, Allen and Shaw and their usu- ally admirable director Phyllida Lloyd seem to have decided to play it as a kind of ecclesiastical thriller, Who Betrayed Brodie? so we get suitably Catholic references to the Last Supper and Renaissance art. But Judas in a gymslip doesn't really make much sense either, given that we know very early on who is Brodie's betrayer, and as always in creaky Thirties thrillers you just have to look for the least likely of her girls. Moreover if you give Brodie a production this vast, on a truly wondrous school-and- convent set by Huntley Muir, you are sim- ply stretching already thin material until all the uniform seams start to show and fray from the front. Some altogether weird stage-management also had (at any rate on the press night) girls thinking they were hidden behind panels out of which stuck most of their limbs, and a supposedly off- stage violinist walking well onto the set. The fact that it is a school play doesn't mean that it has to look like one.

At the Royal Court Downstairs, hitherto (and hopefully soon again) Duke of York's, the new David Mamet The Old Neighbour- hood, recently seen on Broadway with Patti LuPone, starts as brilliantly as any of his recent work. Two men in Chicago are dis- cussing the current state of Jewishness, with especial reference to whether it would have been better to be a Jew in Europe, with everything from the pogroms through Fiddler on the Roof to Hitler, than in Amer- ica where nowadays it seems to make pre- cious little difference what or who you are.

From that bleak and brilliant start we go rapidly downhill; one of these men (Colin Stinton; the other in the performance of the evening is Linal Haft) then decides to revisit his past in the forlorn hope that he might thus rediscover his present and maybe even his future; but in scenes first with his sister (an angry Zoe Wanamaker), and then a former lover (a haunting Diana Quick), it soon becomes clear that nostal- gia is not the answer either. The trilogy lasts only 90 minutes in its entirety, but somewhere along the way we seem, on both sides of the footlights, to lose the plot.

The other New York import of the week has amazingly been running off-Broadway for several years; Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive is, for all that, a truly terri- ble little play, the kind you might have expected from some unholy liaison between Truman Capote and Louisa May Alcott. We are, mainly, in 1969 Maryland where a young girl is sexually assaulted by her own uncle during driving lessons of one kind or another. As he is called Uncle Peck and she Li'l Bit, it is clear we are not expected to find much subtlety here; Lolita comes to the Cornbelt, and corny it cer- tainly is, with three other actors forming a sort of family chorus while Kevin Whately and Helen McCrory frantically try to get their accents right.

Unlike some local commentators, I don't think Vogel's play will encourage pederasty among its audiences any more than The Mousetrap has ever encouraged them to go out and kill people; it may however stop all uncles from teaching their nieces how to drive, and by the end of the evening Li'l Bit has grown into her forties which she seems to spend driving around the highways and byways of America with a bottle of whisky on the passenger seat. It is therefore arguable that she is now still more of a threat to society than her abusive uncle. I guess some plays, unlike Li'l Bit, just don't travel, and this is surely one of those.