It would be easy to write off this revival of Emlyn Williams’s semi-autobiographical drama as an example of post-lockdown “comfort theatre”. First performed in the West End in 1938, this tale of a talented Welsh miner’s son and his inspirational teacher is laced with sentimentality and tweeness. There is even a lilting choir of singing miners whose presence seems orchestrated to tug at our emotions. But if it is comfort viewing, it is undeniably artful, affecting and hugely entertaining.
At its centre is the impoverished, illiterate Morgan Evans (Iwan Davies), whose teacher, Miss Moffat (Nicola Walker) gets him “over the wall” of his limited horizons and all the way to Oxford University. Evans is a Billy Elliot of the Valleys, of sorts, though the indomitable Miss Moffatt gives him lessons in Greek and Latin instead of dance.
Williams’ story may be sentimentalised but is worth remembering as a social history of the more unbendable days of British class privilege, and also of how generations of working-class school children broke through class barriers thanks to a grammar school education.
Dominic Cooke’s revival deploys a quirky theatrical device in which the playwright, Williams (Gareth David-Lloyd), is a character on stage who is constructing his story before the audience. This device cannot quite disguise the old-fashioned nature of the story or dampen its sentimentality, but it brings clever humour and is beguiling in its own right.
The drama begins with an initially empty stage in a self-conscious game of make-believe, though Ultz’s set design gradually gathers its playfulness. There are Christopher Shutt’s crisp, hammy sound effects in lieu of props or set at the beginning – creaking for nonexistent doors that open as characters step on to the stage; the sound of a spoon in a china cup when a character drinks an invisible cup of tea. Actors never leave when they exit a scene but sit with their backs to the audience on the stage floor.
There are other edgy elements, such as the choir’s sooty faces, which are disturbingly reminiscent of blackface and point to the othering of working-class lives.
Cooke’s direction is supremely well-paced and all of the performers have impeccable comic timing. Walker is delightful to watch, both in her angry exchanges with the supercilious Squire (Rufus Wright, excellently doltish), which bring sparky satire, and in her initially brusque attitude towards Davies’s sweet, laconic Evans.
Miss Moffat is a bold, bossy, self-proclaimed spinster with oodles of no-nonsense charm. “I have never spoken to any man without wanting to box his ears,” she says. She’s a Henry Higgins figure, but develops darker shades. There is a zealous focus on the star student (she calls him “my little pit pony”) she is training for Oxford, but she sends the depressed young Bessie (Saffron Coomber, broodingly sublime) to a life of service, writing her off as “one of my failures” because she does not excel in lessons.
Miss Moffat has developed a potential for tyranny by the time a drunk Evans confronts her about her autocratic, unfeeling style of pedagogy. It is a shame that the play does not develop this further, but quickly irons out the tension between them and returns to the clear, simple narrative that Evans wants to better himself. Their bust-up has shown otherwise, and he speaks poignantly of his desire not to be a bookish oddity in his muscular, working-class pit town, but to fit in.
Our hearts do soar and melt, though, as the gifted Evans navigates his way towards a happy ending, and there are lovely, warm laughs along the way. This revival is a reminder that old stories, when they are good, stay that way, however riddled they are with nostalgia.