National Theatre, Lyttelton – until 11 June 2022
Emlyn Williams’ play, once famous, has been little revived in recent years. Set in the early years of the 20th century in a North Wales mining village, it tells the story of a determined single woman who defies social and gender expectations to set up a school, teaching miners. In Glansarno, boys become men at the age of 10 when they are sent to the mine, and the idea that they should learn how to make any more of themselves is seen as at best strange, and at worst dangerous.
Miss Moffat (Nicola Walker) blows into town and changes the outlook of everyone she meets, using her inheritance to set up a village school against the opposition of the local, English squire (Rufus Wright) who is happy to profit from the mines he owns, and not at all happy to be told what to do by a female. Miss Moffat recruits frustrated spinster Miss Ronberry (Alice Orr-Ewing) and pleased with himself Baptist Mr Goronwy Jones (Richard Lynch) to teach, giving them new expectations of themselves. She also identifies the potential of Morgan Evans (Iwan Davies), coaching him to an Oxford scholarship, unheard of for someone of his background.
Many aspects of Williams’ play are dated, not least the character of 16-year old Bessie Watty, a stereotyped floozy who leads Davis astray with her feminine wiles. Many of the characters are stock types, whose role is mostly to provide comic relief, including the idiotic Squire and the flustered Miss Ronberry.
However, Dominic Cooke’s production makes a good case for reviving it. He stages the play, very cleverly, within a narrative structure that emphasises the highly autobiographical nature of the story. Gareth David-Lloyd plays Emlyn Williams who leaves a sophisticated London party, staged with a striking shadow play of dancers behind a screen, and imagines the play into existence. His typewriter begins to clatter on its own, and he describes the setting and stage directions as characters appear on an empty slate platform. A chorus of miners wraps itself around the action, punctuating the action with beautiful male voice songs in Welsh. As the play progresses, props and then a set start to appear as the story gathers pace, and Williams becomes drawn in.
The staging is excellent, but the real reason to see the play is for Walker. Her performance as Miss Moffat, full of self confidence which is challenging throughout, is subtle and human. The part, which attracted Betty Davis and Katherine Hepburn on film, is a fully fledged starring role and she delivers in full.
It is hard to keep your eyes off her, and she reaches deep within herself to overcome barriers that are as much in her own head, as in the social structures around her. She finds a way to work with people, rather than ordering them around, that allows her to achieve everything she wants – but at an unexpected price. Walker gets better with every role, and looks set to be an indispensable member of the National’s ensemble for years to come.
Dominic Cooke follows Follies and The Normal Heart with another triumph that showcases his range, and confirms him as a director operating at the highest level.