Finesse, feeling and the north-south divide
by Peter Gill
Review by John Gross, Sunday Telegraph, 13 January 2002
For its first few minutes, I wondered whether Peter Gill's The York Realist, at the Royal Court, wasn't going to be hard work. The title was awkward, the action moved at a snail's pace, the subject matter — or what one could glean of it from the programme -sounded narrow. Then the play began to exert its grip: before long I was completely absorbed, and I stayed that way to the end.
The setting is a tied cottage near York which a farm worker called George shares with his widowed mother. We are in the early 1960s. George is taking part in a production of the medieval York mystery plays, but despite a natural talent for acting he drops out of rehearsals. John, the assistant director — he's a professional, up from London — comes over to find out why.
By the end of the evening, on the pretext of John having missed the last bus, the two men are sharing the only available bed. It is next door to George's mother's room, but she doesn't hear (or suspect) anything of which she might disapprove.
George rejoins rehearsals. The production is a success, and John tries to persuade him to come down to London and try for a career as an actor. He refuses; the two become estranged. Then, a few months later, just after George's mother has died, John reappears and tries to persuade him again.
The play qualifies as a gay love story, but despite the legal hazards and public hostility which still existed at the time, gayness in itself is not much of an issue. George is if anything more secure in his sexuality than John: when the great moment comes, he is the one who is ready with the Vaseline.
No, the real problems are those created by class, education, geography, even accent. They are made quite explicit, but at the same time there is nothing programmatic about the way Gill presents them. A great deal of the play's success depends on the life with which he endows George's family and the world they represent — a community in which the chapel was still a powerful force, in an England which had not yet been entirely engulfed by pop culture. The characters are beautifully individualised, with a humour which stays the right side of caricature. There is no great nostalgia in the collective portrait, but there is respect.
Still, it's George and John who remain at the heart of the story. They are drawn with depth of feeling and finesse, and the actors who play them display the same qualities. John (Richard Coyle) is the less clearly defined character of the two, but a convincing presence. Lloyd Owen's George is extraordinarily impressive in both his strength and his frustrations: perhaps it is not too early to talk of performances of the year.
Peter Gill himself directs, and there is impeccable acting elsewhere — from Anne Reid as George's mother, Caroline O'Neill as his sister, lan Mercer as his brother-in-law, Felix Bell as his gangling adolescent nephew (he reads the Eagle) and Wendy Nottingham as the decent, unglamorous neighbour who carries a torch for him but (like his sister) silently intuits what his friendship with John is really all about.
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