Like the character at the heart of The York Realist, the playwright Peter Gill was also once a young, learning director working on a revival of York’s Mystery Plays in the 60s with a cast of local people. In all other ways he’s completely different from George, here played masterfully by Ben Batt. George is embedded, not only within his comfortable family life, but also in the land around him on which he works as a farm labourer. There’s something larger than his ailing mother keeping him from leaving for good, something else he can’t get past. He tells us that he has no ambition, that it’s his accent, that he’s too old, but it’s what he doesn’t say that we feel is the real reason for his inability to leave. “I live here!” is left hanging, as if it’s something absolute.
The man who wants him to leave is John (Jonathan Bailey), an aspiring director from London who loves him, and you see the joy the two characters inspire in each other in Bailey and Batt’s acting. Around George, his family move like regular clockwork pieces: his mother (Lesley Nicol), Barbara, his sister (Lucy Black), her husband (Matthew Wilson) and their son (Brian Fletcher) and finally Doreen (Katie West), a “very chapel-minded” neighbour, keen to please and very serious both about God and about George.
George is something of a problem to the rest of the characters, who can tell there’s something in his relationship with John, but also want to see him settled, can tell he’s so set in his ways as to be irremovable from the cottage he’s spent all his life in, and nudge him in their different ways towards what they think is right. Gill has a wonderful ear for natural dialogue and the things we say everyday, everywhere, which are funny in their universal quality. The story is a small one, full of subtleties and compassion for the different characters, and with no need to hurry despite its relatively short length.
I’ve had a – probably quite offensive and simplistic – affection and interest in Yorkshire for years, which I put down to reading too much James Herriot as a child. Director Robert Hastie is from Yorkshire, unlike Gill, who instead knew his story spoke to something many tussle with at some point in their just-past-young lives and placed it somewhere he had some familiarity with, but let us be grateful it is set in Yorkshire. Designer Peter McKintosh has created a beautiful backdrop to the slice of the thick-walled cottage we see: a hill stretches away, with clouds and the suggestion of rain, and as the light behind this changes and slight smoke blows before it, you could be convinced it was real. This impression stays with you.
The York Realist is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until the 24 March 2018
Photo: Johan Persson