Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Sunday Times review
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The York Realist

by Peter Gill

Royal Court, London SW1

Review by John Peter, The Sunday Times, 13 January 2002

Peter Gill’s new play looks back in incredulous joy and looks forward in bleak, sober disappointment. But it is not a bleak play. The time is the early 1960s. John, a young, dissident middle-class Londoner (Richard Coyle), comes to York as assistant director on an amateur production of the Mystery Plays and falls in love with George (Lloyd Owen), a farm labourer. George has a small part in the play, and he lives with his mother (Anne Reid) in a tied cottage in a nearby village. The opening scene, which is set some time after the central events of the play, is masterly in its concision. You know nothing about the two young men: the dialogue is spare, almost evasive, but the sense of mutual need, the anxiety about how to handle it, the fear of acknowledging it, the closeness between them and the unbridgeable chasm are palpable: they ripple and tremble in the air.

Gill, who directs the play himself, attends to his characters with the brooding care of a father and the precision of a surgeon. You are in the other 1960s here: not the bustle of metropolitan flamboyance, but the slow, cautious awakening of provincial England, still wary, secretive, suspicious. People open up to the world with watchful reluctance. Your identity is your home, your village, your habits, and the way people accept them. A trip to London, staying with John, Oxford Street, galleries, the ballet — it is fun, but it is elsewhere. George has a special, natural heartlessness of somebody rooted: a healthy animal in its lair, proud, unselfconscious, free in its native captivity. It is the self-consciousness he experiences in another life, in London, and working in the theatre, that disconcerts him. Ambition is dangerous because it destabilises your identity. For George, acting is a discharge: he plays one of the torturers and people notice how well he does it.

Sex with men is an intense and natural pleasure, but it is not binding: other arrangements can be made. Self-sufficiency can be tyrannous. George is the York realist of the title.

The play is about the price of change and the price of remaining the same. Gill’s writing has a muscular delicacy: it reminds you of As You Like It or The Tempest, some of David Storey’s plays and, indeed, the York Shepherd’s Plays. Half-finished sentences hang in the air with a sense of finality, haunting and bruising. The acting is spellbindingly simple: the characters seem each to create a space around them that is both impenetrable and longing to be filled. A hard, beautiful, heartbreaking and consoling play.

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