Thursday, 15 February 2018

Theatre review: The York Realist

Josie Rourke kicks off her final full year in charge of the Donald and Margot Warehouse with a revival of Peter Gill’s The York Realist, a play I’ve seen before and which, especially in Robert Hastie’s quality-cast production, feels like watching a quietly revolutionary piece of gay theatre, largely because it isn’t, at heart, a “gay play.” It’s sometime in the 1960s and George (Ben Batt) is a farmer living a long bus ride away from York, where he’s been cast in a community production of the York Mystery Plays. He doesn’t have a phone so, when he misses a few rehearsals in a row, assistant director John (Jonathan Bailey) travels up to his house in person to find out why. He does manage to convince George to stay in the production, and his belief in his acting talent seems to be genuine, but he’s got another motive for coming all that way and soon the pair’s obvious attraction sees them disappear into George’s bedroom while his mother sleeps.

The play is bookended by a scene a couple of years later, when John revisits the cottage after the pair have evidently broken up but clearly haven’t got over each other.

So the central part of the story is the few weeks of rehearsals for the Mysteries, during which their relationship grows but the difference in their backgrounds and expectations from life pull them apart. This isn’t the sole focus of Gill’s story, though, as The York Realist plays out as a family drama, and as John gets to know George’s life so do we: We meet his ailing mother (Lesley Nicol) and, in their frequent visits to the cottage, his sister Barbara (Lucy Black,) her husband Arthur (Matthew Wilson) and their son Jack (Brian Fletcher.) Also around a lot is Doreen (Katie West,) a neighbour who’s got clear, and clearly misguided, hopes of marrying George.

Peter McKintosh’s set is a detailed cottage whose rustic charm evokes something of the response that John has – a fascination that borders on the patronising but is genuine enough never to quite go there: Gill could easily make the Londoner a joke for being a tourist in the family’s life but like everything else here this is a sympathetic portrayal. The Yorkshire farmers’ lives are also shown as limited in options but far from stereotypically bleak – George’s nephew Jack is about to leave school and talks about his many options for his future, even if in reality he knows there’s a couple of local jobs that are his most likely path, and he doesn’t really seem all that sad about that.

At the centre though is of course the relationship between George and John, and The York Realist will surely be most remembered for the sparks flying between Batt and Bailey – flying almost entirely through flirtation and eye contact, the two men barely touching throughout the entire show but still building up more sexual energy than many more explicit scenes could manage. But it’s also the reaction to their relationship that feels like a game-changer: Though nobody else says openly that they’re a couple, the way John is quickly treated as part of the family is very much that of a new partner whom the family approves of. While I don’t think anyone would mistake this for a typical response of the time, it’s an important angle that Gill presents – the reaction of a 1960s Yorkshire family to a gay son might not be the stereotypical one.

I also find it interesting that the play dates from 2002, just after the inevitably bleak tone that dominated 1990s gay theatre. Gill does of course have the advantage of setting his story in a pre-AIDS period, but it’s still a fact that, despite having a real sadness at its heart, the play has an overwhelming hope as well. And it’s the fact that it doesn’t feel like “gay theatre” that ultimately makes it feel significant – it’s a period-set family drama that happens to centre on a gay relationship, the problems the couple face come from a variety of factors but their sexuality isn’t one of them. It’s a funny and warm play where not a lot happens but everything has significance, and it receives a pitch-perfect production.

The York Realist by Peter Gill is booking until the 24th of March at the Donmar Warehouse; then from the 27th of March to the 7th of April at the Crucible, Sheffield.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Personn.

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