Review: Nicola Walker Is Luminescent In The Corn Is Green
The most remarkable aspect of the National's new staging of Emlyn Williams's 1930s classic autobiographical work is not the functional but effective staging, or the sotto voce harmonisings of the male voice choir of miners that follows the cast almost everywhere, but Nicola Walker's luminescence as Miss Moffat, the play's beating heart.
She's not without competition either; Jo McInnes's comedic but ultimately wise Mrs Watty, and Saffron Coomber as the precocious good time girl "No Good" Bessie (who nearly derails the hero’s flight path) provide ample counterpoint.
Indeed, much as this is the tale of one man's struggle to break free of the confines of his birth, it's the women who are the strength and rocket fuel to his trajectory.
Counterpointing the author's entree into London society in the jazz age with his impoverished origins in a working class Welsh-speaking community — gilded youth versus the poorest of poor — emphasises the autobiographical nature of the play as much as Gareth David-Lloyd's auteur, mouthing his characters' lines as they speak them and giving them notes in between. But this is as much the tale of an inspirational teacher — herself an outsider — as it is about the boy himself.
The Corn is Green is a product of its era, in some ways dated and stereotypical, which the production cannot break free of (all miners break into song every five minutes, everyone is morbidly religious). Yet it is worth bringing back as a story of otherness and remaking: someone pulled up by their roots and transplanted thanks to the labours of a heroic yet human teacher.
So far, so History Boys. But it is Miss Moffat, a feminist role model if not a poster girl for decolonisation, who shows what transformations can be achieved with will and persistence and against steep odds — even for herself. That the transformation is believable is largely due to Walker.
Dominic Cooke reclaims an old text with clever casting, although the frequent reminders we're in the Land of Song, whilst aurally pretty, do become a little intrusive, though the finale, with David-Lloyd and Gwion Glyn's Idwal Morris embracing tenderly to the strains of Thanks For The Memory is touching if obvious.
Green it may be, but this corn is ripe for harvest.
The Corn is Green, National Theatre, Tickets £10-89, until 11 June
Last Updated 25 April 2022