The York Realist by Peter Gill
Whatsonstage review by Glenn Meads (reviewed at The Lowry, Salford Quays)
Note: This review dates from November 2001 and an earlier tour date of this production.
The theme of repressed homosexuality in England has been seen on stage many times. In recent years, Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing gave the theme a fresh approach and now old hand, one of the Royal Court’s "angry young men" of the 1950s and 60s, attempts to do the same in his new play, The York Realist, which he also directs in this English Touring Theatre production.
Set in 1960's Yorkshire, the play is a love story, of sorts, between farm labourer George and John, the assistant director of a new play in town. George is a down to earth, "tell it like it is" Northerner while John, in stark contrast, is a bundle of thoughtful, middle-class London sensibilities. But opposites attract and soon the two face an agonising decision. Do they continue with their relationship on a sexual and emotional level or do they revert to the lives they led prior to meeting. Torn between the mother he respects and admires and the man he loves, George battles with his conscience every step of the way.
The years have taken their toll on George's mother, played as an old-fashioned, apron-wearing martyr by Anne Reid. She's now very ill but continues to wait on George hand and foot and to believe her son to be quiet, hardworking and ultimately happy - thanks to the contented face he assumes in her company. In other quarters of the family, George's sister Barbara (Caroline O'Neil) plays second fiddle to her brother but never protests, whilst local girl, Doreen (Wendy Nottingham), so similar to mum, is viewed as the perfect wife for George.
The performances are all faultless. Richard Coyle as John conveys a real sense of fear as his character's true self emerges and LIoyd Owen's George is pitch-perfect as a man whose apparent aloofness belies hidden depths of vulnerability. Reid injects some lighter, comic moments, which are also tinged with an edge of poignancy, unaware as she is of her son's inner torment. And as the younger women, Nottingham and O'Neil shoulder their grief so heartbreakingly in the second act that, on the night I attended, several members of the audience were reduced to open sobbing.
But if tears tend to put you off, don't let them in this instance. One of Gill's greatest strengths is that he doesn't forfeit pace for emotion. His instinct to hold back means that The York Realist is never overly sentimental. Instead, what we get is a satisfyingly slow-burning tale of forbidden passions and family ties, the hidden self and fear of change on a grand scale.
My one complaint is William Dudley's set, which is disappointingly sparse and lifeless, unlike this production which involves you on so many levels. But I don't want to end on a negative note. This is a great production and deserves to do well.
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