There's always something spine-tinglingly magical about a Welsh male voice choir singing straight out to the audience. And Dominic Cooke's revival of Emlyn Williams’s ‘The Corn is Green’ exploits that magic to the max: his music-filled attempt to spruce up an intriguing-but-dated 1938 play sometimes founders but often sings.
It focuses on that much-beloved cultural totem, the charismatic schoolteacher who drags her charges from the muck of ignorance into the divine light of knowledge. But where ‘The History Boys’ or ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ focus on a whole classful of pupils, here Miss Moffat sets her sights on just one, the impossibly talented Morgan Evans.
Nicola Walker is tremendous as this dedicated, stubborn teacher, who spends her inheritance on moving from London to a small Welsh mining town to set up a school. She delivers bristling putdowns to the local Squire (a hilariously pompous Rufus Wright) who believes that educating the children of miners will lead to social unrest. She coaxes two at-a-loss locals into serving as teachers. And she nudges Evans (Iwan Davies) into brilliance by relentlessly challenging him, bringing him from biddable teacher's pet to independent thinker – her efforts underpinned by the softest hint of sexual chemistry.
‘The Corn is Green’ is heavily based on Williams’s own life, but with the contrast amped up to the max: he made his character's poverty and misery more gruelling, his ascent to Oxford more precipitous. But that means it's always one step away from melodrama, particularly when it comes to the character of Bessie, a servant's daughter who tempts Evans away from books with stereotypically crafty feminine wiles. The second act descends into potboiler territory, with the drama of the Oxford scholarship exam set against the romance that threatens to ruin it all.
Cooke’s production does a huge amount to smooth over this story’s rough edges. His masterstroke is to turn it into a kind of memory play, with Emelyn Williams himself appearing as a kind of narrator who reads the stage directions out loud. As his world becomes more and more fully realised, so does Ultz's set design, growing from a bare stage into a full schoolhouse box set, while scene changes offer vignettes from the glittering 1930s parties of Williams’s future.
This is a fine example of how to revive a dated play and make it feel postmodern and fresh. But the text of ‘The Corn is Green’ lacks the raw power needed to make this exercise feel worthwhile: it's an intellectual fairytale where obstacles to Evans’s success conveniently vanish, and supporting characters are thin cardboard cutouts to be knocked down on his path to glory. Strong performances and an undeniable momentum make it fun to watch, but there's not much to ponder when the music fades.