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Review: The York Realist, at Donmar Warehouse

Beautiful and moving play tells the story of a young director who becomes involved with a farmhand

22 February, 2018 — By Howard Loxton

Ben Batt as George, and Jonathan Bailey as John, in The York Realist. Photo by Johan Persson

PETER Gill’s play is a love story but it’s also about the divide made by class, culture and geography when a young director called John comes up from London to assist the director of a 1960s revival of the York cycle of Mystery plays and gets involved with a farmhand who is one of the cast drawn from local communities.

Its author-directed 2001 premiere was a landmark production and this revival by Robert Hastie achieves the same sincere reality.

It starts some years later when John, up for a show at York Theatre Royal, makes an unexpected visit before blending back to the day when he turned up to find out why George had been missing rehearsals and, being told he had missed the last bus, spent the night with him.

Jonathan Bailey captures John’s bright-eyed reaction to discovering the countryside and his delight at realising what is so openly on offer (this is when homosexual activity was illegal). These actors positively glow with their newfound love.

Gill’s sensitive writing presents a loving family with its minor frictions, dialogue in which what is not said is just as important.

George’s ailing mother, beautifully played by Lesley Nicol, married sister (Lucy Black) and even the village girl clearly in love with him (Katie West) seem to implicitly understand a situation they would never openly refer to.

Later, visiting London, George had liked John’s friends, going to galleries, nights at the ballet – doing what John did, but the Dales are his home. When the death of his mother relieves him of local obligations could he start a new life?

The York Realist is how academics identify the writer of some of the Mystery plays, but it is also George. Among a fine cast Ben Blatt plays him with a searing honesty that hides his pain from the others but not from the audience. This is theatre that is beautiful and very moving.

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