Cycle of lives
by Peter Gill
Review by Stephen Brown, Times Literary Supplement, 25 January 2002
Peter Gill's new play takes place in the main room of a tied cottage, with outside toilet and coal-burning range, on a farm outside York in the early 1960s. George (Lloyd Owen), a farm labourer who lives there with his mother (Anne Reid), falls in love with John (Richard Coyle), up from London to be assistant director of a production of the mystery plays in York, in which George is acting. When the production ends and John returns to London, George must choose between the new world and the old.
Gill's interest is in the ordinary. His title cleverly evokes a tradition of popular British theatrical realism (the York Realist is the putative author of about eight of the mystery plays in the York cycle), rooted in a peculiarly regional pragmatism and honesty. At its best, The York Realist, also directed by Gill, achieves a gentle "York" realism that matches its hesitant, plain-speaking characters. The box set by William Dudley (framed in thick stone walls, set against an expanse of Yorkshire sky) is filled with precisely chosen stuff: prized porcelain figures on the mantelpiece, the huge dark brown teapot, a copy of Eagle. The play begins slowly, but there is a fine sense of lives observed. Characters eat their tea, brush crumbs methodically off the kitchen table and leave the stage empty as they go to fill a hot water bottle. The love between John and George is sweetly drawn, with a nice line in the bathos of practicalities. After an intense, nervous wooing, just before the two young lovers head up the narrow staircase together, George matter-of-factly fetches a tin of Vaseline from the kitchen. "Be prepared," he says. The references to George's performance in the famous York Crucifixion play, in which four soldiers joke and gripe as they try to fit Christ onto a cross of the wrong dimensions, invoke a lineage of the deeply felt embedded in the mundane and comic.
This is slice-of-life realism of a strikingly relaxed kind. The strong cast, under Gill's careful hand, offer a portrait of an extended family of very muted tensions, from the brother-in-law Arthur (an energetic Ian Mercer), with a dyed quiff and a bulky swagger, to chapel-going spinster Doreen (Wendy Nottingham), still hoping on George in her plaid skirt and embroidered cardigan. Perhaps implausibly, George is entirely nonchalant about his homosexuality — yet to be decriminalized — and Gill suggests that many of those around him see it but choose to ignore it. At the centre of the play, Lloyd Owen's superb, richly voiced performance as George — restrained, passionate, yet also distantly amused - encapsulates the best of Gill's achievement: he is the York realist.
But this ease, finely achieved though it is, blurs into a lack of urgency. The York Realist ultimately fails to answer the question: what is this play for? Thematically it is thin. Gill shows how John begins the bourgeois process of aestheticizing hard lives, admiring the impractical range in the kitchen and a picturesquely dilapidated cottage. The reactions of George and his family to the York cycle raise questions about who owns or feels allegiance to regional culture. But, within the confines of Gill's minimalism, these ideas can only be noted rather than explored, argued or fell. There are limes, too, when the monosyllabic inarticulacy or cheery bluntness of Gill's character veers close to parody.
At the root of the problem is Gill's decision to set his play so strongly in the vanished past. In his best writing, such as Small Change, Gill's portrayal of working-class life, even if thick with memories, has a real contemporary force, both poetic and political; these are voices which matter, and are speaking now. The York Realist, on the other hand, feels like a report from a story long dead. The lyrical intensity of Gill's language elsewhere is largely missing, and there is no real attempt to give George's oft-portrayed position, caught at the beginning of the post-war mass media age, a new relevance. There is something old-fashioned, even innocent, about Gill's period piece. That the character of John, a young director in London in the early 1960s, nods to Gill's own past as one of those who pioneered the working-class realism of the Royal Court at that time, adds to the slight sense of self-indulgence and retrospection. Even the one relatively new element in Gill's story — the gay love at its heart — hardly now feels like a powerful gesture.
It is a shame that Gill doesn't do justice to the complexity bequeathed to British theatre by the mysteries: earthy and colloquial, yes, but intense, lyrical and, in our terms, entirely non-naturalistic too. At the end of the play, John returns to London, and George, left alone in the house, delivers Christ's lines spoken from the cross in the York cycle's Death of Christ (uncertainly attributed to the Realist):
It is a painfully beautiful expression of George's surrendered peace of mind, and the first and only time that the mystery cycle makes a real theatrical impact on the action. For a moment, we can see the lost potential in this warm and likeable play.
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