Donmar Warehouse, London – until 24 March
Love stories take many forms. Here – electric, understated, unmistakable and timeless – the erotic connection is between Ben Batt’s George, farm labourer in a tied cottage in the 1960s, and Jonathan Bailey as the assistant director of the York Passion plays. George has been recruited as an authentic local voice, urged on despite his rugged modesty by the sweet chapel-going Doreen (Katie West, a quiet delight) who takes his old mum to meetings and knows, deep down, that he is “not for marrying”.
Still illegal, though quietly tolerated by the farm family, the affair is also doomed by the utter divergence of their habitats, lifestyles, and a sense of distance between town and country which today feels both authentic and, mercifully, dated. TV would by now have rubbed some of the rugged chapel-and-calving simplicities off mother, neighbour Doreen, and the delightfully gormless teenage nephew Jack; fast communication might have held the lads together for longer.
Even though John won’t give up his advancing southern career to live in a leaky nearby cottage, while George makes it clear that London and its attractions were fine for visiting but “I live here!” With some sorrow, he rejects John’s faith that he could actually have an acting career: “I’m past that.” Today, God willing, he would be working in Sheffield Theatre, co-producer of this production.
For Peter Gill’s 2002 play, which won plaudits but not universal acclaim at first (Charles Spencer was entertainingly rude) is rendered in the Donmar’s intimacy by director Robert Hastie as something perfect: delicate, clear and natural as an upland brook. It can be earthy – George is the seducer, and has a startling admission of how he found out that he was gay after chasing girls unsuccessfully one evening and then saying to his mate: “Better be you, then..” John, more fey and puppyishly shyer, rises to passionate declaration and thwarted anger only later, after the death of old mum (a fine Lesley Nicol, ringing utterly true to anyone with Yorkshire relatives of a certain age).
It is full of glancing, important themes, and not just about odd-couple love (it rather helps that the lovers are gay: in a 1960s heterosexual tale the girl would almost certainly have gone to live where and how the man chose). It also reflects on how an urban middle-class had colonized the world of “culture”, as the locals are given their own heritage of mystery plays by directorial incomers. Yet where that’s concerned, the most heartening scene is after the interval as the whole family, including lumpen Arthur the brother-in-law and teenage Jack, get back exhilarated from the show to exclaim about how grand it was, and how swept up they were by the old story and how George, as a tormentor, was “that cruel!”