'The York Realist' review

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
 (© Johan Persson)
1/5
© Johan PerssonJonathan Bailey (John) and Ben Batt (George) in 'The York Realist' at Donmar Warehouse
 (© Johan Persson)
2/5
© Johan Persson'The York Realist' at Donmar Warehouse
 (© Johan Persson)
3/5
© Johan PerssonLesley Nicol (Mother) and Ben Batt (George) in The York Realist
 (© Johan Persson)
4/5
© Johan PerssonBen Batt (George) in 'The York Realist' at Donmar Warehouse
 (© Johan Persson)
5/5
© Johan Persson'The York Realist' at Donmar Warehouse

Two men fall in love against a backdrop of York's Mystery Plays in Peter Gill's subtle exploration of place and class

There are quite a few York Realists in Peter Gill’s subtle love story. There’s the unnamed medieval author of the town's famous Biblical pageants, the Mystery Plays, who's known for his vigorous use of local vernacular. There's the '60s assistant theatre director John, who's keen to secure local farmer George for his authentic Yorkshire accent, even before he falls for him. And there’s George himself, who at first seems like the naive one, but gradually turns out to have a harder, more realistic worldview then his lover can muster.

Robert Hastie’s revival feels a little stuffy, at first. It clings closely to Gill’s ’60s setting, confined to the kitchen of George’s cottage. John (a puppyish, urbane Jonathan Bailey) is extravagantly enchanted by it, revelling in every detail: from its flagstone floors to its old-fashioned range, if not its outdoor toilet. 

Played by Ben Batt, George is harder to read, mixing pragmatism with hints of desperate yearning for something more. As George and John’s cautious romance develops, it's given poignancy by a horde of people bustling in, unannounced. There’s George’s mother. His sister. Her husband. His nephew. And most tragically, neighbour Doreen, doomed to bake her unrequited yearning for George into endless pies. What emerges of John’s life feels atomised, a collage of shows, galleries, creative friends. George’s world is knitted in to the past.

The chemistry between these two performers is faint at first, offering only the barest hint of the enticing danger of flirting in front of this traditional family. But as their relationship splits along faultlines of accent and opportunity, Hastie's production gains a heartbreaking power. Especially as the world of the farmhouse becomes patterned over with that of the Mystery Plays: George's mother can't forget his cruelty to Jesus on stage, while George is bitterly envious of the Virgin Mary and her future stage career.

The two men are contemporaries, but through John's eyes, George's rural community is as foreign, distinct and romanticised as medieval York. Gill's play romanticises this family, a little, too, mining them for naive poignancy, but their warm, stifling closeness makes a powerful backdrop to his fractured love story.

By: Alice Saville

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