Say it with Vaseline
by Peter Gill
Royal Court, London SW1
Review by Susannah Clapp, The Observer, 13 January 2002
For the past few years the theatre has been behaving like an adopted adolescent with an identity crisis: rootling through recent history in the belief that it will provide a clue about how to proceed. Mid-twentieth-century plays are everywhere. The National has dug up the collected misogynies of John Osborne. Peter Nichols, who has long worn the mantle of neglect, will soon have to assume the unwonted aspect of appreciated dramatist, as his work is regularly staged and admired. And this year it's the turn of Peter Gill to be rediscovered.
Gill is now in his sixties, the author of more than a dozen plays. In the summer, the best theatre outside London — the Sheffield Crucible — is staging a Gill retrospective, producing a new play as well as several he's prepared earlier. But the Royal Court has got in first.
The York Realist is a new play set 40 years ago, the era in which Gill directed — at the age of 25 — D.H. Lawrence's A Collier's Friday Night at the Court. The love affair between a free-and-easy farm labourer and an uptight lad from London, who meet during a staging of the York Mystery Plays, is examined with pre-twenty-first-century decorum but with modern insouciance. There's no onstage gritted-teeth buggery, just a confidently flourished jar of Vaseline. There's no moral breast-beating, but a high emotional charge. It's a play which contains some of the most truthful and distinguished theatrical moments of the past few months. And some of the most absurd and artificial.
The opening scene, of snail-like slowness, is disastrously derivative. In front of an old-fashioned range, with a kitchen sink just in sight, the two young men trade terse monosyllables and pregnant pauses. It's as if someone had been challenged to write Sons and Lovers in the style of early Pinter. The audience seems to be destined for an evening clad in corduroyed earnestness.
But the play's triumph is to move on from this; to show, in particular, a sexual relationship between two men which is heartfelt, gentle and not self-evidently doomed. This is helped by the thrilling voice of Lloyd Owen, whose bass reverberations are likely to be rivalled only by Paul Scofield. Anne Reid, both kind and withholding, is perfectly judged as the mother, who offers the best criticism of the incomer's painstakingly authentic, colonising production of the Mysteries: 'It was very Yorkshire, wasn't it? Not that I mind.' Even William Dudley's design — which at first sight seems dully literal-minded — turns out to be expressive: its clutter and corners prove always slightly too small for people on the brink of a more expansive time.
The slow-burning sympathy of Gill's play is a credit to the Court, but unlikely to burnish its much vaunted 'cutting-edge' reputation.
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