Flawless acting on a Yorkshire farm
by Peter Gill
Royal Court Theatre, London SW3
Review by Alastair Macaulay, Financial Times, 10 January 2002
Anyone, surely, can spot the faults of Peter Gill's new play at the Royal Court, The York Realist. It is at several points too slow, too pregnant, too sub-D.H. Lawrence socialist-realism, too sub-Harold Pinter significant-pausey, and there are other flaws too right through to the closing lines — but so what? The York Realist is always absorbing, suspenseful, and interesting both while you watch and (a quite different experience) when you discuss it afterwards. It's also flawlessly acted.
The era is the early 1960s. The Yorkshire farm labourer George, living with his mother in an agricultural tied cottage, has met the young theatre assistant director John through rehearsals for the York mystery plays. Their relationship is set in relief against the daily detail of George's life: the ablutions at the kitchen sink, the mother, the married sister who lives nearby with husband and son, the young spinster Doreen who might make George a good wife. But George and John are in love. And while it is George who is the more relaxed (at least in private) about his sexual nature, it is John who is the more sure that his/their work must be with the performing arts.
So George's home becomes a closet twice over: a private haven for secret homo-activity amid a hetero-community, and, more insidiously, a rut where lack of ambition, fear of failure, and apprehensiveness about non-conformism coincide to keep George back. I watched The York Realist as if I were both George and John, for I, like George, grew up in a farming family, and I, like John, now visit that metier like an urban aesthete and alien.
Gill doesn't make the play's working-class realism sensuous: that's why it's sub-D.H. Lawrence. And his pauses and tensions and clipped diction feel like knowing exercises in theatrical suspense: that's why it's sub-Pinter. But what makes The York Realist compelling is something of its own: something deeper than its central homosexual relationship. The play's original core is in the conflicted nature of George and in his reluctance to fulfil his own artistic talent.
Gill directs. We've seen Lloyd Owen previously play middle-class modern hetero (Dan in Closer) and noble ancient hetero (Brutus in Julius Caesar) and now, with George the working-class homo, his range, his distinction, and his mixture of attractiveness and dividedness are very impressively assured. Richard Coyle makes an ideal foil for him as John, but every bit as telling are Anne Reid (mother), Caroline O'Neill (sister), Ian Mercer (brother-in-law Arthur), Felix Bell (nephew Jack), and Wendy Nottingham (Doreen). Your feelings about each character change powerfully as the play proceeds. A look, a vocal inflection, a standstill: all these contribute vividly.
Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 2002
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