Nicola Walker in The Corn Is Green – National Theatre – review

Nicola Walker and director Dominic Cooke refresh dated play

★★★★

production photo of Nicola Walker in The Corn Is Green at the National Theatre in London 2022
Nicola Walker in The Corn Is Green. Photo: Johan Persson

The Corn Is Green is a production that is worthy to stand alongside the best of the National Theatre. It almost seems a bonus that it features a star performance from Nicola Walker.

It’s a hundred years ago and an Englishwoman Miss Moffatt, played by Nicola Walker, arrives in a Welsh mining village. It’s her mission to educate the children. One of them, Morgan Evans, played with feeling and humour by Iwan Davies, is exceptionally clever and becomes her protégé. Much of the play hinges around the question, will he or won’t he go to Oxford University?

Apart from Morgan, the other characters are one-dimensional so anyone playing Miss Moffatt is required to carry the show. In the past, the part has attracted some big guns: Sybil Thorndyke, Ethel Barrymore, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Deborah Kerr. Hard acts to follow, and it seems for the first half that this is going to be a one note performance from Nicola Walker. I mean a beautiful pure note, but essentially she is determined and haughty toward everyone she meets and in everything she does. Then as she becomes more emotionally involved with making Morgan a success, a throatiness and slight hesitation pervades the previous stridency. It’s a subtle, powerful performance.

This semi-autobiographical play is dated in some respects and could have failed as a production but for some brilliant ideas by, I assume, director Dominic Cooke. First he introduces the author onto the stage, giving the stage directions and in that sense showing he is both is telling a story and that the story is very much about him.

Production photo from The Corn Is Green at the National Theatre London 2022
The Corn Is Green. Photo: Johan Persson

Morgan talks about the conflict he feels about leaving his community but this is not dwelt on in the play. Again Dominic Cooke’s production comes to the rescue. The use of a miners’ chorus throughout is a reminder of the draw of the community.

The production opens with a 1930s ball shown in silhouette behind a curtain. A man steps out from it to the front of the stage. We soon realise this is Emlyn Williams. He begins to type his semi autobiographical play and creates the characters and story before our eyes. We’re back in a Welsh mining village in the early twenties. A group of miners sing in Welsh. The great Bill Deamer choreographs the moments of dance.

We meet some of the characters: the village children, who only speak Welsh, and the English who stand above and apart from them, showing contempt for people they regard as savages. Themain characters are amusing but fairly one dimensional: Richard Lynch is the saved Christian Mr Jones, with red-faced passion bubbling under his proper exterior; the dim, nervous Miss Ronberry played by Alice Orr-Ewing and the even dimmer landowner that she loves, simply known as The Squire, played by Rufus Wright.  Then Miss Moffat appears.

Educating the children means teaching them arithmetic and to read and write, English, that is. The playwright appears to support this and treats the many   racist attitudes towards the Welsh as a bit of a joke.

Morgan is the a cocky and clever leader of the boys (all of whom are played by adults). He becomes Miss Moffatt’s star student and she is tyrannical in her determination to pursue her ambitions for him, without care of any enemies she might make.

At first the actors mime on a set, designed by ULTZ, that is a blank and black with minimal props, perhaps indicating the emptiness of the prospects of these people who start down the mines at age ten. I don’t want to spoil the surprise but ULTZ’s set design is gradually populated with more detail and, when you come back after the interval, the curtain goes up on a transformed stage, like an Aladdin’s cave after the austerity of the first act. Just as Miss Moffat has become emotionally engaged and the educated Morgan has become committed to leaving for a wider world, the set becomes a naturalistic with colourful wallpaper and detailed furnishings.

Sure, The Corn Is Green is sentimental, patronising, and not overly challenging but, in the hands of Nicola Walker and Dominic Cooke, it is also heartwarming, and a hymn to the power of education.

The Corn Is Green can be seen at the Lyttelton Theatre within the National Theatre until 11 June 2022.

Paul received a complimentary review ticket from the producers.

Click here to watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel on YouTube

The Cane – Royal Court – with Nicola Walker

Magnificent cast featuring Nicola Walker, Maggie Steed and Alun Armstrong

Click here to watch the review on YouTube

Production shot of Alun Armstrong and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre
Alun Armstrong and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

A much loved teacher is about retire but his home is under siege by children from his school. His estranged daughter comes to visit her parents. His regular use of the cane many years earlier has sparked the protest but when we discover that his school has been declared to be failing by Ofsted, it seems the protest may be more against the old ways of doing things- the patriarchial society in which men dominated through the use of violence.

I’m not sure how much I believed the set up or the ending but Mark Ravenhill has written a powerful script. It not only creates a tense atmosphere and powerful dialogue as the characters prowl round each other and take vicious swipes, it also provokes a lot of thought. It’s a tribute to it that the more you think about it, the more complex it seems.

Although this play is primarily an attack on the patriarchy, its strength is that it also asks questions about why people behave the way they do and whether today’s institutions and the people embracing them- in this case Academies and Ofsted- have more similarities than differences.

Production photo of Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre
Maggie Steed and Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Because, although the play is primarily about this teacher, it is also about any of us who work for or deal with institutions. The daughter is heavily involved in academies and describes an almost zombie like atmosphere of pupils facing front and silence in the corridors that is supposedly because the pupil comes first but actually sounds like the way the people come first in the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea

She talks about the way schools must conform to Ofsted’s way of looking at things and use their language. She has a rigid belief in her institution as much as her father believes in his.

Powerful script by Mark Ravenhill superbly directed by Vicky Featherstone

We gain insights into why the father, inheriting a culture of violence, continued it because it was his duty. This sounds very like the ‘I was only obeying orders’ excuses of Nazi concentration camp soldiers. It’s clear he liked exercising the power. But his daughter is no angel. In fact, in many ways the play is about her because the older generation are on the way out. The question becomes, does the present generation with its controls and testing, have its own kind of cane and its own closed mindedness.

She is manipulative and coercive in trying to get her own way. She doesn’t want reconciliation, she wants revenge. We begin to suspect she has orchestrated the protest. We see her too flaring into violent language and acts of violence, not dissimilar to her father.

Production shot of Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court
Nicola Walker in The Cane at Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson

The action takes place in a sitting room, designed by Chloe Langford, that is almost bare of furniture and decoration, so it feels like a cage or a boxing ring. The protagonists are trapped there and nothing distracts from what the they say and do in Vicky Featherstone‘s brilliant production.

All three actors give subtle, nuanced performances. Maggie Steed as the oppressed, bullied, proudly loyal wife but also nasty when cornered.  Alun Armstrong with calm reasonableness, red faced anger and underlying weakness all somehow present whichever was being displayed at the time. And Nicola Walker so natural in the way she talks and moves, so incredibly still when she was observing the others, making her reasonable character’s unreasonable behaviour deeply disturbing.

At the end, the play is pulled back to look at the sins of the now ageing patriarchal generation but such is the intelligence of this fine play you question your own values.

The Cane continues at Royal Court Theatre London until 26 January 2019

Watch the YouTube review of The Cane starring Nicola Walker on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel below