Class that could do better: PATRICK MARMION reviews The Corn Is Green

Class that could do better: PATRICK MARMION reviews The Corn Is Green

The Corn Is Green (Lyttletlon Theatre, National Theatre)

Rating:

Verdict: Minor drama 

Nicola Walker’s admirers are legion, and I’m definitely one of them. The emotional intensity she brought to the lovelorn Ruth Evershed in Spooks catapulted her to fame in Unforgotten, Last Tango In Halifax and The Split on TV. And few can doubt the guts or gravitas she brings on stage.

But I’m not sure Emlyn Williams’s 1938 autobiographical homage to his overbearing school teacher makes the best use of her talents.

The play originally starred Sybil Thorndike in the West End in 1938 and became a film starring Bette Davis in 1945.

Nicola Walker (pictured) plays a bossy teacher, Miss Moffat, in Dominic Cooke¿s version of The Corn Is Green

Nicola Walker (pictured) plays a bossy teacher, Miss Moffat, in Dominic Cooke’s version of The Corn Is Green

Here, Walker gives a commanding performance as bossy Miss Moffat in Dominic Cooke’s revival. But she’s a rather stolid, matronly proposition who lacks the savoir faire of a Miss Jean Brodie.

She marches into rural Wales on an educational blitzkrieg that might today be resisted as exhibiting a domineering English saviour complex.

Best seat in the house 

SONDHEIM’S OLD FRIENDS

Sondheim die-hards must grab remaining tickets for the live screening of the Gala Celebration of his musicals starring Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball.

May 3, from 7pm, Prince Edward Theatre, sondheimold friends.com 

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Seeing off opposition from the local squire to start a school for ignorant miners, one coal-smeared youth catches her eye: young Morgan Evans, who she decides has the most brilliantly receptive mind. His character is the Williams self-portrait and Miss Moffat spends the next two years hot-housing Evans for an Oxford scholarship.

Despite her indifference to Welsh Chapel and Methodist evangelism, Walker’s non- conformist spinster is a hit with the local community.

Her problem as a character, however, is not so much that she doesn’t raise a lot of sympathy, as that she’s barely challenged by anyone on stage.

She makes short work of Rufus Wright’s stuffed toff of a squire, dismissing him as ‘so stupid it sits on him like a halo’.

Poor obedient Morgan (Iwan Davies) seems unable to stop her turning him into a glove puppet. Vaguely resistant at first, he is a doormat who barely gets a word in edgeways — even with Saffron Coomber as the teenage temptress who leads him astray. The only character of substance is the housekeeper and mother of the temptress (Jo McInnes), who raises a laugh of astonishment when she says of her daughter: ‘I disliked her the first time I saw her.’

To bulk up the lightweight plot, Cooke’s production has an actor (Gareth David-Lloyd) as the author — speaking directions and cueing actors.

The novelty of that, and sound-effects of creaking doors and rattling crockery instead of scenery, soon wears off; I have seldom been more grateful to lay eyes on a bench and blackboard. Thankfully, more scenery steadily accretes until we have a sunny room with bay window in the second half.

A chorus of Welsh miners forming a male voice choir is also indisputably seductive, lending a warmth and nostalgia that’s otherwise missing. I longed for a round of Land Of My Fathers as a good tearful climax, but that never comes.

Instead, the slightly weird finale has the author seemingly falling in love with his student self as they waltz intimately about the stage. But that didn’t stop the matinee audience directing a standing ovation at Walker.

This, I suspect, was more in approval of her character’s Ofsted-like zeal, than in admiration of Miss Moffat’s fortitude in overcoming a few trifles.

 

Generations of carers with the right to nurse a grudge

Marys Seacole (Donmar)

Rating:

Verdict: Hail Mary 

A long, naturalistic scene in Marys Seacole has two black nurses chattering in Jamaican patois as they tenderly give a bed-bath to an elderly white woman who has soiled herself. A first in the theatre for me, and a humbling lesson.

Pulitzer-winning Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play begins as a biography of Mary Seacole, the real-life Creole ‘doctress’ who set up a boarding house to nurse cholera victims in Kingston, and then wounded soldiers in the Crimean War.

In front of a green screen suggesting tenting and surgical scrubs, a proud Mary introduces herself as the bold adventurer she was.

Kayle Meikle (Pictured) gave an impressive performance as Mary Seacole in Pulitzer-winning Jackie Sibblies Drury¿s play

Kayle Meikle (Pictured) gave an impressive performance as Mary Seacole in Pulitzer-winning Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play

Disrobed of her Victorian corset and full skirt, she becomes a present-day Mary in a nurse’s uniform. The odd pluralisation of the Mary in the title suddenly makes sense. Drury is exploring what it is to be a female carer over the past two centuries. Her point is that the often unpaid or underpaid roles as carers — Marys — have fallen to women. A vast number of immigrants (‘They need us, they don’t want us,’ says a young Mary) from former British colonies are employed by the NHS and, like Mary Seacole, they feel downtrodden, dehumanised, underappreciated and angry.

But there is too much telling and too little showing as three generations of black women carers and cared-for white women play various versions of themselves.

In one scene, Olivia Williams is a frazzled mother who has put her dying mum into care then snaps at a black nurse not to forget her mother is a person. Later, as a snootily superior Florence Nightingale, she refuses Seacole’s offer to care for patients in the Crimea.

The play resonates with echoes of plays by Caryl Churchill (time travel) and Sarah Kane (brutality, despair) as historical scenes of bleeding corpses in Crimea blend into contemporary images of war-torn Ukraine.

As Mary, a volcanic Kayla Meikle exudes anger and hurt like molten lava. But overall, a sharper focus would have better served Seacole’s remarkable story.