The York Realist
Sheffield Theatres and Donmar Warehouse
Robert Hastie’s presentation of The Yorkshire Realist is a tribute production to writer Peter Gill whom he met in 2001 and whose work he has since admired. The title refers to the unknown author of the York Mystery Cycle, whose gritty and often humorous realism enlivens the medieval plays.
Gill’s play is written in a style that takes us back to the one-set realism of Osborne and Pinter, and more recently to plays exploring family relationships in non-metropolitan, working class environments, like Lawrence’s The Daughter in Law or Barry Hines’s Kes.
It comes as no surprise that Gill sees himself as "a Chekhov man" in contrast to the scenes of brutality expressed in Kes, and that his re-written version of Uncle Vanya was a triumph when performed at the Crucible in 2017. So, it is the complexity and often understated nature of relationships that interests Gill in this play. But where Chekhov has four acts to draw out the complexity of relationships in Vanya, Gill’s action is constrained to two short acts.
The protagonist George is a muscular farm hand who puts in long days working on his brother-in-law’s small sheep farm. But George has also been cast in a production of the York Mystery Plays where he meets London urbanite John who is the assistant director on the production. George doubts his capability as an actor but is persuaded by John to continue with rehearsals and they begin a relationship.
The action of the play focuses on the love between the two men and the impossibility for either of them to walk away from a way of life that is based in familiar surroundings. So John is totally London-centric and won’t even consider relocating to York where he might find work in the theatre; and, although George finds no satisfaction in his work as a farm hand, he has an identity in the Yorkshire setting and would feel like a fish out of water, jobless and dependent in London.
This conflicted central relationship is ably presented by Ben Batt as George and Jonathan Bailey as John. Batt gives a strong performance as a no-nonsense Yorkshire man who keeps his feelings under rein however deeply affected he is. Bailey is convincing as a contemporary gay director, sensitive and intelligent, though the performance is sometimes so inward that it is difficult to hear. The second act showdown between the two of them is powerfully written and particularly well performed.
In addition to the central figures, there is a group of characters who flesh out the family and village community of the setting. Because this is a short play, there is little opportunity for detailed development of these characters and a tendency towards stereotype which teeters on the comic. This is despite heroic efforts on the part of the actors to establish depth of characterisation.
Lesley Nicol gives a convincing performance as Mother but is rather undermined by the insistent cliché of the tea ceremony, and Brian Fletcher as Jack and Katie West as Doreen have to work hard to avoid becoming comic stereotypes. The same is true of Matthew Wilson’s bluff and tough Yorkshire brother-in-law, though Lucy Black as sister Barbara finds more in the writing on which to base an individualised and more complex characterisation.
The production was well received by the local audience who responded to humorous elements, local references or parody of a Yorkshire stereotype like being tight-fisted, but were also moved by the emotional content of the play and some rose to give it a standing ovation.