Superb display of love's facets
by Peter Gill
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at The Royal Court from January 4 2002, Mon-Sat 7.30pm, matinees Sat 3.30pm, ends February 2 £5-£26
Review by Nicholas de Jongh, The Evening Standard, Wednesday January 9, 2002
It comes as a relief in these sexually up-front times, when simulated buggery is all the rage on stage, to discover a play about gay lovers that goes no further than one unexceptional kiss, a restrained embrace and a little, light handholding. But The York Realist by veteran dramatist Peter Gill is sensationally fine and poignant. It exposes more interesting facets of love than mere flesh. Since the play concerns a Sixties gay affair between George, a 35ish farm labourer and John, a younger theatre director from London, leathery cynics may still imagine an evening of soft-focus gay romancing has been arranged. All wrong.
Gill's play, one of the finest written on the theme in 30 years, puts homosexuality back where it belongs — in the family. The love affair — all stiff or tight-lipped and reticent — is played out in the midst of northern, working-class chapel folk who believe alcohol after a funeral is far too unseemly. It's wrecked, though not through guilt or discovery — this being a time when gay sex, even in the case of adults consenting in private, could lead to gaol. Gill shows how differences of class, culture and tradition, an unfair educational system and the push and pull of family values, conspire to end the chaps' attachment. So this is not just a play about love, it's a dramatic reminder of how affairs are often moulded and marred by forces of society.
The York Realist takes place in George's tied-cottage in the country outside York, the kitchen sink just out of sight and no inside lavatory. William Dudley's set, with its kitchen range, drab furniture and general air of poverty, is minutely realistic. Indeed it's almost as though you were whisked back to the Sixties Royal Court and its days of gritty social realism. But in those days, this play would have been censored — men weren't allowed to touch each other at all.
Lloyd Owen's earthy, phlegmatic George, sturdy as oak, confident as a judge summing- up, stands in his workaday clothes staring impassively at his lost lover, John, a sleek, longish-haired, leather-jacketed Londoner who has returned on a visit. They exchange a few, terse civilities. The atmosphere reeks of sexual tension. The York Realist then flashes back a year or two to when George's mother (superb Anne Reid) was still alive. Gill beautifully scores comic effects from the sight and sound of the family manners: the smothering, vacuous mother; spiky married sister, inquisitive nephew and chapel-bound spinster neighbour fluttering hopefully around.
His own meticulous, exquisitely acted production registers 59 varieties of social unease and conformity. And when John first comes visiting, ostensibly to persuade George back to act in an amateur production of The York Mystery play, the extraordinary occurs: George's assured, surreptitious wooing of the hesitant John is conducted in verbal code, in full though uncomprehending family view. Their affair subsequently becomes something understood and accepted, but unmentionable. Lloyd Owen's performance as the farm labourer, with the talent and longing to be an actor, is astonishing in its power, throttled fury and sadness in the sight of lost love and discarded ambitions. And Richard Coyle, though his accent is all over the place, affectingly catches the ardour and desolation of the hopelessly besotted theatre director who triggers this rich, rare family drama.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 09 January 2002
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