VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS
It is a curious feeling to be half charmed and half irritated by a production: one moment absorbed in a confrontation and engaged with a character, the next irritated by a gimmick of style. Dominic Cooke’s directorial decision is to hammer home the autobiographical nature of Emlyn Williams’ powerful play, about a doughty bluestocking teacher starting a school for the ragged children of a 1920’s mining village.
So we first see a Brylcreemed author in evening dress – Gareth David-Lloyd – leaving a dance sweating, haunted by a group of grimy-faced miners softly singing that most beautiful Welsh song Calon Lan. He begins agonizing by a typewriter. And, to my increasing dismay, then hangs around narrating and delivering stage directions all through the act like a film director, even with lights arranged at the side, while the cast bring on furnishings in a black-box space. He is building his past: fair enough, but he doesn’t half get in the way of it.
The characters when allowed begin to enact the actual tale: the arrival of Miss Moffatt and her interaction with the dim local squire and mineowner, the frustrated flirty young Bessie and the stern Baptist Evans. She recruits the latter two as teachers. Enjoyment mounts, especially because Nicola Walker is fabulously posh-bossy and direct as the schoolmarm, and Rufus Wright comic and horribly credible as the Squire. The miners, always around, often hum or sing for a moment in heartbreaking harmony. Some become the pupils learning. Battles are fought.
But dammit, all the time the pesky author bustles about the stage with the same anxious hangdog expression, ordering the cast about and describing things . Yet Williams is not Dylan Thomas, and the clunking memory-play idea palls rapidly. It is best when he fades into silent observation and the tale can properly catch fire – a splendid scene where Miss Moffatt bamboozles the squire into backing her pet scholar for an Oxford scholarship, and another when the scholar Morgan rebels against her English upper-middle saviourism. And the characters who grow do so well – Walker explicitly, but more subtly, rather beautifully, there is development in Alice Orr-Ewing’s Miss Ronberry, a “surplus woman” of that post WW1 era suddenly finding usefulness and contentment.
After the interval suddenly we have a full naturalistic set, blackboard and dresser and grandmother clock and all, and mercifully less direction from the author, still roaming about anxiously. The play’s dated quality shows itself with the inevitable one- night fling resulting in a potentially disastrous baby, but the negotiations about everyones fate are deftly done, even if it does take the author to butt in.
Theres a fine eloquent heartfelt moment when the lad expresses the intellectual power and freedom he felt at his Oxford interview , and there is power in the argument over the nature of duty. Its a hokum resolution, very JB Priestley, but in its 1930s terms it works (might watch the Bette Davis film now). How the poorest get educated and enabled to rise in the world is, after all, still a hot topic today. And the miners’ songs and hums are very beautiful.
Nationaltheatre.org.uk. To 11 June