A Theatrical Neophyte With the Know-How of a Pro

LONDON — If you’re going to venture onstage for the first time, a nearly two-hour, emotionally fraught solo play without a break might not seem the best place to start. But the TV actress Jodie Comer, better known as the assassin Villanelle in the Emmy-winning series “Killing Eve,” has taken to the West End in just such a play, “Prima Facie” by Suzie Miller, with gleaming-eyed assurance.

First seen in 2019 in the writer’s native Australia, “Prima Facie” is at the Harold Pinter Theater through June 18 — though it will presumably have more life as long as its star chooses to stick with it. “House Full” signs have marked out Comer as the box-office equal of such theatrical heavy hitters as Mark Rylance in “Jerusalem,” the Jez Butterworth masterwork playing just streets away.

Comer is cool and commanding as a defense lawyer named Tessa who discovers, at considerable personal cost, the limitations of the law. Assaulted on a night out by a colleague whom she brings to trial, Tessa soon finds herself confronting a legal system whose strictures even a mind as shrewd and sharp as hers cannot overcome. The second half devolves into an angry broadside, but you can only command the impulses behind a play that wants to educate as well as entertain: Audience members are handed leaflets on the way out to raise awareness about sexual consent.

Justin Martin’s busy staging finds Comer leaping onto the furniture and engulfed by a brief onstage rainstorm, to keep a potentially static monologue interesting to the eye: A chair at one point becomes a toilet bowl into which Tessa is sick, and a crucial costume change is done in full view of the audience.

Comer plays to all levels of the theater, often sweeping her gaze upward as if to enlist us as her jury. And though she speaks the text at breakneck speed, there’s no denying the visceral power of an evening that owes its sellout status to a theatrical neophyte who possesses the know-how of a seasoned pro.

The director Dominic Cooke’s revival of “The Corn Is Green,” by contrast, is a large-scale production featuring a male ensemble of lusty-voiced Welsh coal miners. But the star attraction is Nicola Walker, a 2013 Olivier Award winner whose gathering TV acclaim since is surely attracting audiences to the National’s Lyttelton auditorium, through June 11: She headlines the legal drama “The Split,” which started its third and final season on the BBC last month.

Walker plays the crusading teacher Miss Moffat in “The Corn Is Green,” a 1938 play by Emlyn Williams that draws from that Welshman’s singular path toward literary self-confidence and success. A brisk, no-nonsense Englishwoman, Miss Moffat has arrived in a rural Welsh mining village at the start of the 20th century to bring literacy to a community of colliers distinguished, she’s quick to point out, by their smell. (Their daily routine is hot and sweaty.)

One of these begrimed youngsters, Morgan (the charismatic Iwan Davies), displays an aptitude for the life of the mind and not just the mines, and Miss Moffat leads him toward a scholarship to Oxford that the feisty lad at times resists. Morgan is disinclined, at least at first, to be the “little pit pony” that his keen teacher his would have him be, though he soon realizes that education makes an entirely new life possible.

The play’s journey is preordained, and some of the bumps on the way are because of Williams, who pushes Miss Moffat in a direction — not to be revealed here — that doesn’t entirely jibe with her character. But Cooke enlivens a time-honored tale by involving Williams directly as his play’s narrator (played by Gareth David-Lloyd), setting the scene and monitoring events throughout. And a vigorous Walker invests the peppery spinster at its inspirational center with a fiercely beating heart. Morgan is better for having met her, as are we.

Change hovers less happily over “Middle,” the beautifully acted new play from David Eldridge running in the National’s smallest auditorium, the Dorfman, through June 18. A two-hander about a couple in crisis, the play returns to the stage another fine actress , Claire Rushbrook, who is better known for work on film and TV. (Her credits her include “Doctor Who” and “Whitechapel,” two well-known British series, and the wonderful Mike Leigh film “Secrets and Lies.”)

Rushbrook’s Maggie has been married for 16 years to Gary (Daniel Ryan), and the two have an 8-year-old daughter who is in bed upstairs when a sleepless Maggie enters the kitchen before dawn to inform her husband that she’s not sure she still loves him. What ensues is a reckoning across 100 minutes (no intermission) in which the pair, both nearing 50, figure out where they are heading next.

Gary’s response, at least at first, is to keep things light, but that doesn’t last. By the end, tears have been shed and crockery smashed on the way to a movingly ambivalent finish. Life doesn’t always allow for tidy closure and nor does “Middle,” which suggests that muddling through is sometimes the only option.

Will Maggie leave Gary for John, a policeman with whom she has gone on a date to Tate Modern? She may not know herself, and Rushbrook communicates an uncertainty that is immediately raw. Her eventual breakdown scene feels lived from within.

Ryan does well, too, countering his wife’s truth-telling by saying he finds “complete honesty” overrated: He’d rather make jokes than discuss dissatisfactions that are no less real than his wife’s. (Among other things, he wanted a second child, and she did not.) Where Maggie speaks what ‘s on her mind her openly, Gary hides his feelings behind her a smoke screen of banter.

Polly Findlay’s production keeps us guessing, and the emotional swerves are skillfully navigated throughout. As with Comer and Walker in their plays, “Middle” offers an actress at the top of her game forsaking the screen for the in-the-moment excitement only found onstage.

Prima Facie. Directed by Justin Martin. Harold Pinter Theater, through June 18; NTLive broadcast on July 21.
The Corn Is Green. Directed by Dominic Cooke. National Theater, through June 11.
Middle. Directed by Polly Findlay. National Theater, through June 18.

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