Before the Sixties began to swing
by Peter Gill
Review by Charles Spencer The Daily Telegraph, 10 January 2002
The temptation to start giggling during Peter Gill's stunningly boring slab of dour social realism must be strenuously resisted. I fear he is in deadly earnest. Unfortunately, his play comes across as a brilliant parody of all those gritty, Northern-slice-of-life dramas, films and novels that were so popular in the kitchen-sink years before the Sixties really started to swing. The only significant difference between The York Realist and the novels of Stan Barstow and countless films starring Albert Finney or Tom Courtenay is that Gill has a homosexual, rather than a heterosexual, love affair at the centre of his drama.
George (strong, taciturn Lloyd Owen) is an apparently straight farm labourer living with his mum in a cottage just outside York in the early Sixties. He joins the cast of an amateur production of the York mystery plays and begins an affair with the young, London-based assistant director, John (wimpy Richard Coyle). Their couplings taking place, highly implausibly, in the room next to his respectable old mum's.
Had he actually written The York Realist in the early Sixties, a time when the Lord Chamberlain still wielded formidable powers of theatrical censorship and acts of sex between consenting adult males were illegal, the play would have been rightly acclaimed as a courageous landmark. Gill, however, has missed the boat by 40 years.
Instead, his Lawrence-influenced play comes over as an excessively self-conscious period piece, and, though I'm sure this wasn't his intention, he often seems to patronise his inarticulate working-class characters.
The impoverished monosyllabic dialogue, in which they try and largely fail to express their feelings, seems mannered rather than touchingly true to life. And there is none of the poetry and little of the humour that Irish writers such as Billy Roche and Conor McPherson bring to their plays about the small change of everyday life. Here's the scene in which George and John meet several months after the end of their affair: "Well." "Yes." "Aye." "Yeah." "Well then. Mm . . . Yeah . . . Come in." There are yards more of the same, and the effect proves alarmingly narcoleptic. Rarely can awkwardness, embarrassment and tenderness have been more mechanically conveyed. What's meant to be naturalistic seems as artificial as Oscar Wilde.
Nor does Gill prove any great shakes when it comes to characterisation. John remains a bland cipher throughout, and I never believed that butch George would be so relaxed about his sexuality. And, in the portrait of George's chapel-going mum (Anne Reid), Gill strays deep into Alan Bennett country. She's always busy in her pinny, telling people to wear vests and warning of the evils of drink. On learning that neighbours have gone to Spain for their holiday, she inevitably inquires, "What's wrong with Bridlington?" and, when her daughter complains that the actress playing Pontius Pilate's wife "was very common, I thought", one wonders if Gill has any idea of just how brilliantly parodic his writing is.
Most absurdly of all, the sad conclusion is mired in risible bathos, the affair ending because the lovers seem incapable of making the hardly arduous travel arrangements necessary to commute between London and York.
Gill directs his own play, very slowly and very stolidly, his cast gallantly struggling to conceal the derivative nature of both the dialogue and their characters. The production, by English Touring Theatre, is as dull as one of George's ditches, and it is sad to see such a lame duck limping across the Royal Court's main stage.
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