The York Realist

Peter Gill
the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2003)

Peter Gill directs his new play himself and does so successfully. He draws excellent performances from his three key actors in this poignant tale of an illegal love affair, and captures the speech patterns of Yorkshire farming folk perfectly. In particular, Lloyd Owen gives a really moving depiction of the eponymous hero.

Life in a farming hamlet in Yorkshire in the 1960s was very hard. Gill transports us back to what is an innocent time but almost as alien as that 1,000 years before when the York Mystery Plays were written. The love affair that is central to the plot takes place as a direct result of the coming of the Plays to the city.

The often-monosyllabic George, a mother's boy who will never use a whole sentence when three words will do, becomes a part-time actor after his farming day. He soon meets John, the plays' assistant director, and under his mother's nose, in their tied cottage they begin an affair. Whether this is just a holiday romance or something deeper is initially hard to tell. This is largely the result of George's inability to articulate his feelings but the more nervous, if far more sophisticated John is sometimes hardly better.

George, beautifully played by Owen, comes to life on stage as he shows his incredible frustration at his inability to express his feelings. The scenes with both his mother and John speak volumes through the silence. He deeply loves them both but his first loyalty is to his home. This is a man who could leave Yorkshire for London and the chance of a stage career. However, he lacks ambition and wouldn't consider doing so, even when the love of his life would be there to welcome him. Like many people who will not talk properly of their love, he is always in danger of paying the price that this entails and losing out on rare opportunities.

This play works on two levels. First, it is a comic depiction of Yorkshire farming life in the 60s. This was a time when men worked hard in the fields or the office for little reward, there was no unemployment and women willingly acted as their servants. The second level is the well-judged love story. Gill together with Owen and Richard Coyle, as the often uncertain but equally willing John, struggle for something special that is unlikely to overcome their cultural and geographical differences.

Anne Reid is very funny as the mother, keeping a marvellously straight face as she innocently battles with ill health and the minor problems of her life. The other family members are equally blunt but can be more incisive. There is a scene where they criticise the plays according to their own values. This can be summed up by two words from George's sister Barbara. On considering Pontius Pilate's wife, her opinion is that she is "very common".

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Philip Fisher