The Corn Is Green Critique – A Heart-Warming Inspirational Praise of High School Education | Theater
IIt would be easy to dismiss this revival of Emlyn Williams’ semi-autobiographical drama as an example of post-lockdown “comfort theatre.” First presented in the West End in 1938, this tale of a talented Welsh miner’s son and his inspiring teacher is steeped in sentimentality and tweeness. There is even a singing choir of miners whose presence seems orchestrated to draw on our emotions. But if he is viewing comfort, it is undeniably clever, touching and extremely entertaining.
At its center is impoverished and illiterate Morgan Evans (Iwan Davies), whose teacher, Miss Moffat (Nicola Walker) takes him “through the wall” of his limited horizons and into Oxford University. Evans is a Billy Elliot of the Valleys, in a way, although the indomitable Miss Moffatt gives him lessons in Greek and Latin instead of dancing.
Williams’ story may be sentimentalized but deserves to be remembered as a social history of the most inflexible days of British class privilege, and also of how generations of working-class schoolchildren broke through class barriers through a high school education.
Dominic Cooke’s revival deploys an offbeat theatrical device in which the playwright, Williams (Gareth David-Lloyd), is a character on stage who builds his story in front of the audience. This device can’t quite hide the old-fashioned nature of the story or dampen its sentimentality, but it does bring in smart humor and is alluring on its own.
The drama begins with an initially empty stage in a game of self-aware pretend play, though Ultz’s set design gradually regains its playfulness. There’s Christopher Shutt’s crisp, hammered-out sound effects instead of props or set at the start — creaking for non-existent doors that open as characters take the stage; the sound of a spoon in a porcelain cup when a character drinks from an invisible cup of tea. Actors never leave when exiting a stage but sit with their backs to the audience on the stage floor.
There are other edgy elements, such as the sooty faces of the chorus, which are uncannily reminiscent of blackface and point to the otherness of working-class lives.
Cooke’s direction is extremely well-paced and all the performers have impeccable comedic timing. Walker is pleasing to the eye, both in his angry exchanges with the haughty Squire (perfectly stupid Rufus Wright), which provide bubbly satire, and in his initially brusque attitude towards Davies’ meek and laconic Evans.
Miss Moffat is a bold, bossy, self-proclaimed spinster with heaps of no-frills charm. “I never spoke to a man without wanting to break his ears,” she says. She is a Henry Higgins figure, but develops darker undertones. There’s a zealous focus on the star student (she calls him ‘my little pony’) whom she’s training for Oxford, but she sends depressed young Bessie (Saffron Coomber, sublime) to a life of service, writing her off as “one of my failures” because she doesn’t excel in class.
Miss Moffat has developed the potential for tyranny when a drunk Evans confronts her about her autocratic and insensitive style of pedagogy. It’s a shame the play doesn’t expand on this further, but quickly irons out the tension between them and returns to the plain and simple narrative that Evans wants to improve. Their collapse showed otherwise, and he speaks poignantly of his desire not to be a bookish oddity in his muscular, working-class pit town, but to fit in.
Our hearts soar and melt, however, as the talented Evans heads towards a happy ending, and there are some lovely, hearty laughs along the way. This revival reminds us that old stories, when they are good, remain so, however full of nostalgia they may be.