The York Realist, currently playing at the Donmar Warehouse before a brief stint at The Sheffield Crucible, is a play by Peter Gill, written in 2001 but set in the early 1960s. The play tells the story of George, a Yorkshire farm labourer (Ben Batt) who is cast in a production of the York Mystery Plays. For reasons that we may guess but are never made clear, George withdraws from rehearsals, much to the seeming satisfaction of his mother (played by the excellent Lesley Nicol) who knew he “wouldn’t stick at it”.
The play, set entirely in the farmhouse George shares with his mother, seems initially to be a tale full of familial mundanity, with much of this recognisable mother-son ribbing and great speculation over who George will marry. Only the play’s opening, which is a flash-forward to how it concludes, gives us a glimpse of the real reason for George’s bachelorhood. John, assistant director of the York Mysteries is visiting George again after some time and the air is thick with passion, anger and longing.
So convincing was the Yorkshire dialogue and period feel, that one could easily be convinced this was a play written contemporaneously. Even though I’m not old enough to claim I remember this era, the piece evoked even in me a nostalgia for the Carnation Evaporated Milk and clothes drying by the fire.
At the heart of the piece is a competition, of sorts, between George’s three loves: his mother, John (played with a loveable coyness and charm by Jonathan Bailey) and the landscape that surrounds the family farmhouse. Ultimately, it is the North York Moors that win out, with George choosing to shun the chance of a new life with John in London for his Yorkshire hearth and washes at the kitchen sink. The play’s journey from the first flushes of passion between these diametrically opposite men to the painful sadness of their parting is compelling and utterly heart breaking.
The period setting reminds us of how far things have come for LGBT people but also demonstrates the cages we can sometimes continue to build for ourselves as gay men; perhaps it’s George’s shame that prevents him from pursuing his happiness with another man.
Everything about this production is pitch-perfect, from the simple but detailed design by Peter McKintosh, to the excellent performances of every member of the supporting cast (Katie West is heartbreakingly naive as Doreen and Brian Fletcher sublimely gormless as Jack) and Robert Haistie’s measured and sensitive direction.
I cannot recommend this production highly enough: The York Realist is beautiful play populated by excellent performances. A stunning evening at the theatre – go if you can.
Reviewed by Jody Tranter
Photo: Johan Persson