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'The Corn is Green' review — Nicola Walker shines in an imaginative masterclass

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Top marks for Dominic Cooke, who gives a veritable masterclass in how to imaginatively revive a play that has fallen out of fashion. His thoughtful revamp of Emlyn Williams’s semi-autobiographical 1938 work The Corn is Green, about the schoolteacher who changed his destiny, throbs with new life and features a powerhouse turn from Nicola Walker.

She stars as Miss Moffat (based on the real-life Miss Sarah Grace Cooke), the indomitable English spinster on a mission to educate children in a rural Welsh mining community. She whizzes into town on her beloved bicycle Priscilla, like a cowboy astride his trusty steed, and has soon co-opted the purposeless Mr Jones and Miss Ronberry into becoming teachers in her new school, battled past local objections, and discovered an exciting prospect in Morgan Evans, a young orphan with boundless academic potential.

Williams’ plot then takes an unfortunate turn for the melodramatic. Worse, a major development is based on the thinly written character of Bessie Watty, the brattish housekeeper’s daughter who is selfish desire incarnate: she wants money, sweets, attention, sex. Saffron Coomber plays up her vile manipulativeness, which makes her even more of a ghastly device.

But if Cooke can’t quite get around that issue, he solves plenty of others by giving us a shimmering memory play in the vein of another Williams bio-drama, The Glass Menagerie. Emlyn Williams becomes a character, voicing the stage directions and occasionally stepping in to guide the action. Gareth David-Lloyd gives him a delicate emotional journey; sometimes he’s troubled by revisiting his past, sometimes he yearns for it.

Cooke presents a man caught between two worlds: the tuxedo-clad playwright is at a swanky party with other bright young things, but jaunty jazz gives way to the a cappella song of the Welsh miners (the stirring musical arrangements are by Will Stuart).

Education has allowed him to travel from one to the other, adopting a new class and a new identity. But it also gave him the means to voice his thoughts and to tell his story, one that places working-class Welsh characters centre stage.

That is the gorgeous framing of Cooke’s production. There’s no set at all to begin with, just Williams’ voice and sound effects, but it’s gradually filled in over the course of the show – from cast members to props and finally a whole house – as he comes into his power.

It puts the emphasis on storytelling, a gift first spotted by Miss Moffat when she reads Morgan’s essay on the horrors of working in the mines, and a big part of her manifesto: ensuring that everyone has access to the miracle of the printed page.

Though elements of Williams’ work feel inescapably dated, like the comedy aristocrat, that principle comes hurtling at us through the decades. Of course education should be accessible to everyone, as should the arts. And at its zenith, education should be life-changing – a great leveller in a meritocratic society. There is a piercing moral clarity to this play.

It does render Morgan something of a cipher, although Iwan Davies is excellent in the moments when Williams allows him to express his doubts and frustrations, his rebellion against Miss Moffat’s rigid plans, and his difficult admission that he’s been longing for an escape route out of his hometown. Rufus Wright and Alice Orr-Ewing are brilliantly funny as, respectively, the pompous squire and determinedly feminine Miss Ronberry.

But the evening truly belongs to Walker. In contrast to that pair of gendered archetypes, her Miss Moffat is unusually brusque and plain-spoken, a fearsome force and a passionately crusading reformer. Though she can be funny and sharply observant, she often lacks sensitivity; she freely admits that she knows Morgan’s brain better than she knows him.

She also wrestles with her personal stake in his success. There is a hint of her living vicariously through him, Walker heartbreakingly hinting at her struggle within a society that prizes women’s beauty over their intelligence; her pupil will go farther than she ever could. Yet this is ultimately a paean to the self-sacrificing dedication of great teachers – and, thanks to Walker’s blazing performance, it’s a lesson that touches the heart too.

The Corn is Green is at the National Theatre to 11 June.

Photo credit: Nicola Walker (Photo by Johan Persson)

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