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Theatre review: The York Realist

Peter Gill's play has stood the test of time

Donmar Warehouse

    Jonathan Bailey (John) and Ben Batt (George)
    Jonathan Bailey (John) and Ben Batt (George) (Photo: Johan Persson)

    Peter Gill’s 2001 play has stood the test of time as surely as the Yorkshire Dales farming cottage in which it is set. The realist of the title is George, a farmer who lives with his mother, whose health is failing.

    George is the epitome of the bluff Yorkshireman. His effortless masculinity has been conscripted by theatre enthusiast Doreen into a production of the Mystery Play stories in York, cast with local people. And thanks to Doreen it is has been revealed that George is a talented actor. But the emerging romance at the heart of this drama is not between the lovelorn Doreen and George, but George and John, the theatre production’s assistant director.

    The 1960s setting adds a layer of legal taboo to the relationship. But the strain of it isn’t so much the possibility of being discovered, rather the impossibility of Londoner John and George forging a life together. London is where John’s career in theatre is rooted, Yorkshire is the only place George can imagine himself living. His mother’s failing health is but an excuse to stay put.

    However, what is so captivating here is the finesse with which Gill explores the way in which emotions — gay or straight — are suppressed rather than expressed. Although it’s not all about significant silences or pregnant pauses. The scene in which George’s extended family discuss his performance and the show’s content is sheer joy. “Jesus was good ,” observes George’s mother.

    Peter McKintosh’s design of the downstairs living space with its wrought-iron range and heavy wooden beams could be the setting of any story over the past 300 years or more, although some clever time-shifting modernises the old-fashioned realism. The plot opens with the beginning of what turns out to be the final scene, with the majority of the action told in flashback. The transition sees characters of the past and present share the stage at the same time. As a device, it works well enough, though Stoppard’s Arcadia, written a dozen years earlier, does it much more effectively and poignantly.

    Still, Robert Hastie’s production couldn’t be better acted. As George, Ben Batt is both magnificently contained and then disarmingly at ease with his sexuality. Jonathan Bailey as the urbane and more cautious John is also terrific, as is Katie West in transmitting Doreen’s stoic acceptance of her circumstances — another act of suppressed emotion that is pure Chekhov in its tragedy.

    And although at just at one-and-three-quarter hours the evening is relatively short, it’s paced with the steady, inexorable progress of a mist as it rolls over the hills and dales. Like that landscape, the play will never date.

     

     

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