The Corn is Green

Emlyn Williams
National Theatre at Home
National Theatre (Lyttelton Theatre)

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Nicola Walker and Iwan Davies Credit: Johan Persson
The Cast of The Corn is Green Credit: Johan Persson
Nicola Walker Credit: Johan Persson

Rather than reviving this classic 1938 play by Emlyn Williams as written, Dominic Cooke presents a rather quirky but nevertheless charming new interpretation with Gareth Davies-Lloyd as the playwright himself at its centre, acting as a Jazz Age narrator and even deus ex machina.

This means that the first half of the play comes over as a recreation of Emlyn Williams’s process of thinking and creating. It is played out in a black box without props and subject to constant interruptions, as the writer attempts to refine his script.

The story is obviously at the very least semi-autobiographical, set in a Welsh mining town in the early years of the last century, and the scene is set by the efforts of the tuneful colliery male voice choir, which adds colour throughout.

It opens with a contretemps between the harmless but brainless local Squire played by Rufus Wright and the strong-willed inheritor of a local property. While the locals are expecting that Lt Col Moffat will be a military type, he turns out to be a militant she in the person of Nicola Walker’s Lily Moffat.

With the somewhat two-dimensional assistance of contrasting pair of prudes with little to do, John Goronwy Jones and Miss Ronberry respectively played by Richard Lynch and Alison-Ewing, she attempts to teach the local children and miners English.

Rather than pandering to the resident bigwig’s desire to maximise coal production, Miss Moffat follows all of her schoolmarmly instincts as a workaholic fanatic who will face down far stronger folk than the squire, although the production’s comedy highlight comes during a hilariously sycophantic and flirtatious meeting as she attempts to get the squire’s patronage for her prime protégé.

While education might not seem a particularly fulfilling experience for a high-achieving graduate with an MA, Miss Moffat takes it to new heights after instantly recognising the exceptional intellect of Morgan Evans, portrayed by Iwan Davies. Foregoing the pleasures of youth, he becomes her pet project, working as hard at his lessons as he does down the mine.

By doing so, the young man provokes derision as “the schoolmistress’s little dog” but also support and eventually admiration from all around, including the Cockney mother and daughter duo of Jo McInnes, portraying retired petty thief Mrs Watty, and Saffron Coomber, bored, rebellious Bessie.

The young lad’s goal, though really it is initially more that of his mentor, is to achieve the impossible by winning a scholarship to Oxford from where the world will become his oyster.

The play and drama are both transformed after the interval, a set designed by Ultz unexpectedly appearing, together with a spanner in the works that would represent a terrible plot spoiler if revealed in a review.

Nicola Walker is outstanding in a role that has been played over the years by Sybil Thorndike, Ethel Barrymore, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn and brings the best out of her young co-star Iwan Davies, who plots his way through a series of youthful transformations from happy-go-lucky Jack the lad through devoted student, would-be lover and eventually budding Emlyn Williams.

While the presence of the playwright on stage is a novelty, it does no harm to a moving evening which proves to be a welcome revival of work from a playwright whose popularity has waned of late but might now be due for a fresh reappraisal.

National Theatre at Home is available on subscription, broadcasts in HD, costs only £9.99 for a month or £99.99 for a year.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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