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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Promises Promises, Random Accomplice theatre review

Published in Northings

Promises Promises

(Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 4 February 2010, and touring)

TEACHING IS all about living up to a promise. So said an old associate of Maggie Brodie, the supply teacher at the unsteady heart of this excellent one-woman play by Douglas Maxwell. The teacher promises to teach and her job is to fulfil that promise one short lesson at a time.

The promise Brodie keeps, however, is altogether more gruesome. This is a play that starts off as a classroom comedy and ends up as a dark psychological horror story. On the way, it has all the slippery twists and turns of a gripping page-turner.

Promises Promises, produced by Random Accomplice, was inspired by a true story from a London school. A six-year-old Somali girl was refusing to talk, so a community leader was allowed into the classroom to perform a ritual to rid her of devils. In Maxwell's version, Brodie is outraged by this intervention but, as the supply teacher, is powerless to stop it.

With 40 years' teaching under her belt and the shadow of her father's religious zealousness looming over her, she regards the exorcism as an intrusion on her professional territory and an indulgence of superstitious faith. In this it is easy to sympathise with her, but she also has something of the indignation of a Daily Mail reader, a reactionary sense of superiority tinged with unspoken racism.

This premise could have led to an issue-based drama in which the merits and challenges of religion, multiculturalism and modern teaching methods were debated and ticked off one by one. But, although Maxwell touches on all of these questions, he labours none of them, preferring instead to pick apart the character of Brodie herself.

Like her namesake in the Muriel Spark novel, she is guilty of the sin of pride, but it is a flaw that covers a much more serious malaise. The deeper she leads us into the story, the more we see her not as the controlled figure of authority but as a vulnerable woman whose dependence on sex and alcohol stems from an abuse similar to that suffered by the Somali girl.

By the end, nothing is as it seems. Not the bright comedy, replaced by gothic horror; not the exorcism, which is more of a benign ritual; and not the actions of Brodie, which don't square with the tabloid description of a "race-hate miss", although they are no less shocking. It makes for a turbulent, unsettling 90 minutes, not least because of the assured swagger and deadpan playfulness of actor Joanna Tope in Johnny McKnight's atmospheric production.

Promises Promises is at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, on 17 February; OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, on 24 March, and Woodend Barn, Banchory, on 25 March, 2010.

© Mark Fisher, 2010

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