‘Promises, Promises’, Soho Theatre

Promises Promises left me gasping for breath this week.  In the dark, tiny confines of the Soho Theatre Miss Jean Brodie, recently retired in disgrace from a Scottish school, delivers an intimate monologue from her temporary supply classroom. 

A full cast of characters comes to life during her tale, from a young headteacher jollying his staff along, to a small mute girl newly arrived from Somalia with a team of community workers trailing behind her.  They’re determined to exorcise her demons and make her vocal again – in full view of her young classmates – and Miss Brodie appears to be the child’s only defender.  It ends in a bloody drama far removed from my own supply teaching experience, where my most uncomfortable moment was being asked by a 16 year old schoolboy to perform an inappropriate act on him in a South London schoolground.

The play could have been titled Snip Snip, so vivid was the cutting imagery threaded throughout.  The threat of something sinister and unnamed is present from the beginning, with a marvellously realistic primary classroom setpiece enveloped in the shadowy darkness of the theatre.   As the play races towards its dramatic climax, figurative cuts both past and present – severed relationships with a sister and a best friend, stolen tailoring scissors to deny a father his fearsome power, alienation from the colleagues around her – become literal gashes.   

As Miss Brodie reflects on the promises broken by others in her life, she tries to keep her promise to her new student that she is safe in her classroom.  Her voice intensifies and sharpens as the young girl’s self-imposed silence is revealed to be a reaction to a primitive, dangerous, but all too common slicing inflicted by older womenfolk to preserve the purity of their daughters.  

Miss Brodie has been a broken woman for most of her life, and the most poignant scene for me was not the confession of molestation by her father, the revelation of her alcoholism, or even her discovery of the abuse of the child.  It was instead the utter abandonment she feels when her best friend from her early teaching years runs off with a man. 

This friend’s words were “straight out of the dressing up box”; she was a woman who took the words and ideas of others and cut, shaped, and sewed them until they fit her like a glove, much like the home-made outfits she wore.  Miss Brodie longs to be like her, but failing as a seamstress she instead seeks to uphold her friend’s mantra that a teacher makes a promise to to keep her students safe and teach them all they need to know.

At the end of the play, the lecherous male community elder finally suffers a similar fate to that of the young girl, at the hands of Miss Brodie and her stolen tailoring scissors.  It is with terrible sadness though that we realise she does not protect the child out of love, but rather in an attempt to avenge older, more personal wounds.

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