The York Realist
Donmar Warehouse, 22nd March 2018
Live in Sheffield? Like theatre? Then you must go see this production of the 2001 play, The York Realist, which is on at the Crucible for the next couple of weeks. Live in Sheffield and no interest in the theatre? Even more reason to go. The family at the centre of this play went to see the York Mystery Plays and they were bowled over by it. The same will happen to you if you see this. Cast iron guarantee.
This is the first time I have seen a play from the pen of Peter Gill and I can’t imagine a more sympathetic production. This revival is a co-production between the Donmar and Sheffield Theatres and, if this is what Artistic Director Robert Hastie, serves up to the good people of Sheffield on a regular basis then I might just have to move there. I see there is a production of Caryl Churchill’s epic, by her standards, Love and Information set for early July. I’ve signed up. For those with the attention span of a gnat this is the play for you.
Back to The York Realist. The “York Realist” was, probably, the writer of 8 of the 48 individual plays or pageants which make up the York version of the Medieval Mystery Plays. These were constructed as a way of bringing the Bible stories to the hoi-polloi, both as performers and audience, through the C14, C15 and C16. The 8 plays in question are characterised by the broad, Yorkshire vernacular in the text, lending them an everyday realism. A production of the Mystery Plays is what brings together the protagonists in the play, John and George, in the early 1960s. Peter Gill too has conjured up a completely naturalistic play, over four acts and set entirely in one set, the main room of the tied cottage which agricultural labourer George shares with his unnamed Mother. George’s sister Barbara lives nearby with husband Arthur and son Jack, and nearest neighbour Doreen is a regular visitor.
There is a little formal experimentation in terms of chronology but none of the shenanigans ushered in to British play-writing by the likes of Beckett, Pinter, Osborne, Bond, Churchill and Stoppard. The plays opens with John visiting George after his Mother has died, before we revert to the early days of their relationship. At its heart this is the love story of John and George and it is a very affecting love story indeed, (some parallels with the recent debut film from Francis Lee, God’s Own Country, I gather).
Well-spoken southerner John, a doe-eyed, polite Jonathan Bailey, is the assistant director at the Mystery Plays, (as indeed Peter Gill was in his youth in the 1960s). George is a blunt, muscular, salt of the earth type who can’t commit to sticking with the play. It is hard to imagine anyone else but the excellent Ben Batt playing the part. John has come to persuade him back to the play. Their attraction is obvious from the start and both actors are completely convincing in their relationship. George’s seduction is amusingly direct, John’s coyness easily overcome
Their relationship flounders more on the rocks of class and geography than the reaction of family, who have tacitly accepted George’s sexuality. George feels bound, or maybe chooses, to stay looking after ailing Mother, Downton’s Lesley Nicol, and eventually bows to what seems inevitable by taking up with the humble, attentive Doreen (Katie West), who has been waiting all her life for him despite his identity. With minimal and unforced dialogue, and some very gentle disclosure, we also get to see the ambitions and frustrations of bluff Arthur (Matthew Wilson), indefatigable Barbara (Lucy Black) and Brian Fletcher’s Jack who seems destined, if reluctant, to take up farm labouring.
What is so brilliant about Peter Gill’s writing is the way, within this entirely naturalistic scenario, he draws out the themes he wishes to explore. John’s slightly patronising middle class fascination with the past, the rural and the antique, (though he isn’t prepared to abandon his life and work in London and creature comforts to live in the country), George’s acknowledgement of all that London has to offer but his fear of moving (“I live here”), the denial of identity, the pull of family, gender roles, the allure of self-sacrifice and devotion, the limitations placed on aspiring working class actors, the power of theatre and its appropriation as “high culture”, the inequity of tied farming. None of this is rammed down your throat, and perhaps the biggest dichotomy, the fact that gay relationships were still illegal in the early 1960s, is made more telling by its near absence in the story.
Apparently Peter Gill has a long association with the Donmar as writer and director. Just shows how much I know. I was aware of his guiding hand behind the Riverside Studios in its heyday in the late 1970s and his association with the National Theatre Studio in the 1980s. I see that the new Riverside Studios is close to completion, (passed it on the bus the other day), though I think it will be devoted once again to TV. I only got the bus because I didn’t have time to walk along that part of the Chiswick riverside where Peter Gill lived. That’s one of the joys of culture-vulturism. All the little coincidences and connections.
I can’t imagine Robert Hastie’s direction, Peter McKintosh’s design, Paul Pyant’s lighting and Emma Laxton’s sound being bettered. I do note that some of the proper critics think this has improved on the original production at the Royal Court in 2002. I can tell you it is a very fine play and, if they match this, I hope to see other revivals of Mr Gill’s work. Meanwhile people of Sheffield you know what to do.