In Review

The Corn is Green review: Nicola Walker’s performance is ‘unmissable’

Emlyn Williams’s 1938 play has not been seen in London since 1985

Emlyn Williams’s 1938 play The Corn is Green – about a teacher who makes it her mission to educate the children in a poor mining village in north Wales, and helps one of the students win a scholarship to Oxford – is a defiantly old-fashioned piece, said Sarah Crompton on What’s On Stage. It’s not been seen in London since 1985, making this powerful, “pitch perfect” production at the National feel “more like a resuscitation” than a revival.

Director Dominic Cooke’s “inspired intervention” has been to turn the semiautobiographical work into a memory play, with Williams “himself” appearing on stage to read the directions and character descriptions. With some of the sentiment stripped away by virtue of this simple device, the play becomes a “paean to the power of imagination itself”.

Cooke’s “non-naturalistic approach” is brilliantly successful, agreed Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. There’s clever use of design: the stage starts off bare, but the sets become more realistic as Miss Moffat’s school becomes a reality. Cooke makes wonderful use of music, with a Welsh chorus of “coal-blackened, cloth-capped” miners.

And the acting is sensational. “I can’t see anything other than A*s being bestowed” on Nicola Walker’s “unmissable” performance in the lead role. Iwan Davies as Evans, her star pupil, is also excellent, as are Rufus Wright as the “proudly philistine” local squire, and Saffron Coomber as a disaffected local teenager.

Some viewers may feel that a moderate play has been flattered by a first-rate production, said Clive Davis in The Times. I can’t imagine that the “neatly packaged ending”, for instance, would “get through a script conference at Call the Midwife”. But I enjoyed it.

This is definitely “comfort viewing” rather than social critique, and it is “laced with sentimentality and tweeness”, said Arifa Akbar in The Guardian. Yet it is “undeniably artful, affecting and hugely entertaining”. Our hearts “soar and melt as the gifted Evans navigates his way towards a happy ending, and there are lovely, warm laughs along the way”.

National Theatre, London SE1. Until 11 June

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