Theatre review: Promises Promises, Dundee

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SCIENTIFIC rationalism, secular values, freedom from superstition and unreason. West European nations often present themselves as the guardians of these values, in a world riven by religious fundamentalism; but in truth, those ideas are a couple of centuries old at best, and held little sway in much of our own society, within living memory.

Promises Promises - Menzies Hill Community Centre, Dundee

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Miss Margaret Brodie, the sole character in Douglas Maxwell’s stunning two-hour monologue, is a woman of 60 whose life has spanned that entire cycle, from a childhood dominated by an abusive but outwardly pious Catholic father, through a middle life in which – as a teacher in London – she seemed to have escaped into sexual freedom, and a more rational world. At the end of her career, though, she sees those enlightened values begin to fail, as her politically correct head invites a “community leader” into the school to exorcise a mute Somali girl said to be possessed; and the terrible rage this incident arouses in Miss Brodie, along with her strange affinity with the child, provokes a shocking and devastating crisis.

It’s rare to see a play tangle so directly with the grimmest forces unleashed by our attempts to live in a multi-cultural society, while we still carry so much damage inflicted by our own cultures. And in Philip Howard’s superbly simple Dundee Rep production – on tour to community centres – Maxwell’s challenging text finds an actress equal to its demands in the wonderful Ann Louise Ross, who gives a performance full of the sexiness, rebellion, pride and rage of the woman at the heart of this story; a woman who believed some progress had been made in her lifetime, and cannot bear to see the demons of her childhood returning, to damage another generation.