The York Realist (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: February 17, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Peter Gill      Director: Robert Hastie


Josie Rourke has recently announced an intention to leave her position as Artistic Director at the Donmar Warehouse and, when the time comes to assess the high points of her tenure, Peter Gill could feature strongly. His play Versailles, which premiered here in 2014, may have shown the strains of over-ambition, but its searing final act lingers on in the memory. Now this revival of  The York Realist, first seen at the Royal Court in 2002, proves to be the perfect marriage of play and venue.  The Donmar, better than any other theatre in London, can accentuate subtlety and give power to the understated in intimate human dramas and Robert Hastie’s exquisite production takes full advantage.

Gill writes about irreconcilables – town and country lifestyles. middle class and working class values. The time is the mid-1960s and John (Jonathan Bailey) is up in Yorkshire from London to work as Assistant Director on York’s Mystery Plays. He comments that the countryside is everything that he expected and still nothing at all like what he had expected, probably meaning that most unexpected is George (Ben Batt), a farmer who shows promise as an amateur actor (in the days when actors from working class backgrounds were welcomed into theatre). George is plain-speaking and plain-thinking, finding no time to question or show reticence about his homosexuality, contrasting sharply with townie John’s coy nervousness when being seduced. Interestingly, George has been mirrored recently by the central character in Francis Lee’s wonderful film God’s Own Country, which has a similar setting. Perhaps there is something in the Yorkshire air.

Batt is simply superb. When he realises that what he yearns for most in life is the thing least attainable to him, he turns to the audience, failing to hold back tears and we are all heartbroken. Bailey too shows true passion as the uncomprehending John. Lesley Nicol is touchingly real as George’s dutiful but ailing mother and Katie West gives poignancy to the role of neighbour Doreen, who is prepared to carry out household duties for George, quietly biding her time until the time is right for her. In Peter MacIntosh’s warm farm cottage set the back door is always unlocked for family and friends to wander in, a custom somehow abandoned in cities and there is a sense throughout that everyone knows and accepts the truth about George, but never speaks about it. Beautifully written and impeccably observed, Rourke’s successor in the Donmar hot seat will do well to keep up the standards achieved by this production.

Performance date: 16 February 2018

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