FringeReview UK 2022
Directed by Dominic Cooke, Set and Costume Designer ULTZ, Lighting Designer Charles Balfour, Composer, Arranger and Music director Will Stuart, Sound Designer Christopher Shutt, Choreographer Bill Deamer, Company Dialect work Penny Dyer, Company Voice Work Jeannette Nelson, Welsh Language Consultant Aran Jones, Associate Director Jac Ifan Moore, associate Set Designer Mark Simmonds.
Till June 11th
At a time when education’s being slashed for poorer children, it’s not sentimental to recall how the breakout to meritocracy started. Most famously on stage in this semi-autobiographical account of one boy’s education to an Oxford scholarship by a redoubtable teacher; and how by implication all this meritocracy’s being rewound.
First produced in 1938, with dramatist/actor Emlyn Williams starring as his alter ego Morgan Evans, The Corn is Green became hugely popular in film and culture: like a blueprint for the 1944 Education Act, opposed by Churchill and many Conservatives. As the Squire tells Miss Moffat without a trace of geo-political irony: ‘If there were more people like you, y’know, England’d be a jolly dangerous pace to live in!’
It’s a shrewd move though on Dominic Cooke’s part to snatch the central metaphor from the play’s title – a boy’s semi-literate, but brilliant evocation of countryside whilst down the mines – and use it to frame the production.
Because we not only start with Alan Bennett’s kind of Alan 1 and Alan 2 moment: another Oxford graduate – here author Williams (a besuited Gareth David-Lloyd) twins his semi-fictive self Morgan Evans (Iwan Davies), acts as commentator on the action (using Williams’ copious stage directions), walks around, even halts it. We also see the play refracted inevitably as an act of writing, from David-Lloyd looking back on his Welshness, peeking in at the action as he prowls an initially empty-space stage. He’s even at a typewriter ripping out rejected drafts.
It’s spelt out in the opening: an Oxford Gaudy Night where silhouettes dance behind arched windows and David-Lloyd breaks out, to be surrounded by s chorus of Welsh miners. It’s affecting and yes sentimental, but no less evocative or true.
And though Nicola Walker’s Miss Moffatt, an Englishwoman with an Aberdeen MA propels the action, and disapproves of men (‘I have never spoken to any man without wanting to box his ears’) it’s a boy’s education, like Billy Elliott’s sixty years later.
Of course it’s Williams’ own story, but the original for Miss Moffatt fought for her own. ‘We’ve been waiting for it (an MA) for two thousand years’ she tells the Squire. By contrast her London-born housekeeper’s daughter Bessie (Saffron Coomber) she writes off as ‘one of my failures’ and both women have her sent out to service. That works.
It’s an education for several people. If the axis is naturally Walker’s fixed personality, round whom everyone constellates, Walker herself is taught a lesson as she puts it, reproving others: ‘it isn’t horrible and it isn’t unnatural… it’s nature giving civilisation a nasty tweak on the nose.’ But most of all she berates ‘my own crass stupidity for allowing not one jot for humanity.’ If there’s shades of Svengali or Henry Higgins, Moffatt has the humility to recognise her ‘pet pit-pony’ as she condescendingly christens her protégé early on, has other desires, wants to be accepted by his peers – of both sexes.
The initial flinching Davies brings this out, modulating from scurrying Welsh to (in the final scene) a deliriously articulate Oxford-bound eighteen-year-old who just after this has to become a man in one leap, the last lesson both he and his mentor learn together.
Walker’s magnificent, bringing all this to bear on her face and in the way she turns quite still and in a flash is a swirl of decision. Delighting in demolition, she first crushes Rufus Wright’s bluff twittish Squire, then has to dissimulate hapless femininity to get him on side. Wright’s character blossoms under her canny tutelage.
Likewise Moffat tames Alice Orr-Ewing’s genteel Miss Ronberry out of her superannuated dreams of marriage; and Richard Lynch’s ‘tame volcano’ Mr Jones out of a basso profundo God-dreaming too, as she licks them into committed teachers.
There’s excellent work too from Jo McInnes’ frank Mrs Watty, who ‘never loved’ her daughter Bessie – Coomber’s own elevation is blazed in blue taffeta and hat, full of a vitality that Moffat gracefully acknowledges faster than anyone else. Coomber’s graduation from a kind of sailor-suit (actually in the directions) to womanhood is a vigorous yes, quick to open bids and close deals.
The other notable feature – it’s already bursting out of the original, being Wales – is song. It’s undeniably affecting. Many of the twenty-five strong cast (including understudies) mass around key moments, become the voice of the community Evans is propelled from. Much is due to composer, arranger and music director Will Stuart, and choreographer Bill Deamer.
Abstracting from the well-made West End play too, Cooke and set/ costume designer ULTZ strip everything after that gauze on Gaudy Night lifts. The first act (which takes in the first scene of the second too) features a simple raised dais where dialogue’s augmented by David-Lloyd’s puckish audio-description. Actors walk off only to sit down facing outward, as descriptions pepper the air. In addition to David-Lloyd’s stage-directions too we get Christopher Shutt’s sound shutting doors, tinkles of tea, Welsh weather.
Since the latter action’s in one place, the second act, or remainder of it, suddenly presents as a solid schoolroom. After such fluidity, it’s almost alarming. There’s two windows upstage – stage-left a full bay one giving onto a swirl of snow; with doors and bookshelves stage-right, a red-carpeted staircase stage-left and the bleak polish of aspiration. Charles Balfour’s lighting, previously numinous, dims to wan then brilliant with July. It’s a clever concentration of plot, as if barriers and prison walls, as well as Evans being ‘lifted over the wall’ as he himself hopes, become horribly manifest.
The ensemble of named characters is exemplary. Gwion Glyn’s Idwal Morris, Garyn Williams’ Robbart Robbatch, Adam Baker’s Glyn Thomas, Jonathan Hawkins’ John Owen, and Sion Emlyn’s Will Hughes crouch, spring, trick and cower as raucous children – and men – of the valley.
There’s fine singing too from the set of understudies, several of whom will take title roles in the US tour, and it’s right to record them: Ben Francis, Matthew Hargreaves, Steffan Hughes, John Ieuan-Jones, Gareth Kennerley, Kristian Morse, Tomas Moya, Steffan Rizzi and Peter Wilcock.
There’s many reasons to see Williams’ finest play. It’s heartwarming, yes, and a superb story that never fades because its aspirations, like the corn, stay green. But Walker as a Miss Moffat of humour and humanity, and the burgeoning power of Davies’ Evans, point to a fundamental need: to realise our potential it’s not enough to have dreams, but for someone to show us what those dreams could be.
At a time when governments from Afghanistan to nearer home seem determined to control, through starving most people of the capacity to even ask questions – let alone dream – we’re reminded of those who think: ‘England’d be a jolly dangerous place to live in!’