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Wit and pathos: Lia Williams as Miss Brodie in the Donmar Warehouse production (©MANUEL HARLAN)


The Donmar Theatre in Covent Garden is a work of pure illogic. It seats just over 250 people, tickets are notoriously hard to come by and yet it showcases new approaches like Phyllida Law’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy, launched in the days when gender-bending was an exception not the rule, and it lures celluloid stars such as Tom Hiddleston to play a bloody Coriolanus, and Dominic West to move from his permanent posture as 21st-century rake to 18th-century equivalent.

Results can be uneven. West gave us one of the memorably awful performances on press night in Les Liasons Dangereuses by forgetting a good portion of the lines. But the ambition to combine glitz and seriousness has kept the Donmar in brisk business.

Something dramatic has happened offstage in Endell Street, however, occasioning the joint departures of Josie Rourke, its artistic director, and Kate Pakenham. The first all-female duo to head a premier-league theatre have, somewhat abruptly, moved on, with a crisp statement in June from the board announcing the hunt for a new artistic director.

The main dissatisfaction appears to be a lack of transferable hits, at a time when the Almeida is acting as a reliable pipeline from Islington to the West End and Broadway. Other studio theatres, notably the Young Vic, have found a niche appealing to young audiences, with irreverent takes on the classics and a younger bench of stars.

Rourke is a talented and engaging director, now applying herself to film, but the overall feeling is that she was better running her own projects than masterminding a grand slate of successful Donmar offerings with potential to expand the brand or its wider presence outside WC2. With a board headed by the commercially-savvy John Browne (ex-BP boss), the next contender had better have a failsafe recipe for spreading the Donmar’s joys wider.

The present era does, however, end on a high with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (which runs until July 28), a secure reworking of Muriel Spark’s Bildungsroman set in a genteel but seething girls’ school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. It has been adapted by David Harrower, who has brought fresh ambition to 19th- and early 20th-century works, ranging from Chekhov to Brecht and Pirandello. With the rangy Lia Williams in the role of the ambitious, capricious Miss Brodie, we are set fair for a pacey romp through rapid teenage emotional swings, naively dangerous attraction to Mussolini’s fascism, and stubborn fondness for teachers who break the rules and ignore the set-menu curriculum.
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