Donmar Warehouse, London – until 24 March
Like a Yorkshire Brief Encounter, Peter Gill’s 2001 play The York Realist set in the 1960s has lost none of its power in the 17 years since it was written. Rather, it has only grown in stature as a sensitive and restrained tale of love and loss set against a background of tradition, duty and expectation in a Yorkshire farming village.
The Donmar Warehouse’s revival couldn’t be more timely; two years ago the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality reinvigorated interest in telling the stories of repression and prejudice while celebrating hard-won rights and freedoms.
This culminated in a seminal production of Angels in America at the National Theatre last year, which recently opened on Broadway, while Francis Lee’s 2016 film God’s Own Country also set on a Yorkshire farm has earned itself a number of BAFTA nominations.
The Yorkshire countryside has long been an inspiration for writers looking to elucidate the link between the unforgivingly beautiful landscape and the stoical men and doughty women who feel enduringly tethered to their physical surroundings.
It may have started with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as the wild moors became synonymous with her dark hero Heathcliff, but plenty of great work has followed, from the comic creations of Alan Ayckbourn, each tinged with a deep-rooted sadness, through John Godber to more recent work such as James Graham’s fringe play Sons of York, as well as films including last year’s Dark River with Ruth Wilson. Yorkshire is arguably the one county that continues to fascinate and inspire popular culture.
With more than a nod to DH Lawrence, The York Realist may have a tough exterior, set in a slightly rundown cottage with an outdoor loo in the middle of solitary acres of hard farming land where nothing has changed for decades or even centuries, but it’s actually a fragile and deeply emotional piece.
In Robert Hastie’s wonderful new production it feels like delicate china in your hands, as though any second you might crush it to pieces, and the gentle unfolding of Gill’s tale of impossible love clutches at your heart, making it ache for these victims of circumstance.
One evening while having his tea, young farmer George is surprised to find John, an Assistant Director, on his doorstep wondering why he hasn’t been to rehearsal for the York Mystery play for a few weeks. That night their relationship begins, but with a farm to run, a live-in ailing mother to take care of, his sister’s family nearby and plenty of neighbours traipsing through, the two men find themselves on different paths. As John’s visit to Yorkshire comes to end and a return to London beckons, what future can they have even when circumstances change?
Taking place entirely in George’s farm kitchen, the play starts with a Brief Encounter-style ending as John arrives evidently many months after their separation. Exactly like Noel Coward and David Lean’s film, by setting-up the beginning of the end in advance Gill’s play creates an emotional pitch from the start as this small teaser fades instantly back into the past re-establishing a world long disappeared. Gill takes the audience back to only the crucial moments of George’s recent past where love, family and possibility existed and were sacrificed, while commenting on a lost agricultural world of community and support.
The Lawrence parallels are clear, dominant mothers, silent sons with artistic souls, the warmth and sometimes claustrophobic effect of small working-class communities and feeling as though opportunity narrows rather than increases with age. Gill, like Lawrence writes with romantic realism about the land, of the physical connection to place in a way people can never feel in cities, and this flows through Hastie’s production as each of the residents we meet feels permanently anchored to Mother’s kitchen, the latest in generations of Yorkshire folk to have been part of this enduring community.
This sense of timelessness is also represented in Peter McKintosh’s set design, incorporating a graphic depiction of those ancient hills and dales that stand eternally behind the house, suggesting both a hint of life beyond the walls of the cottage – which John offers to George – while also being the reason he can never accept it, can never be too far from this stretch of earth. While ostensibly set in the 1960s, there’s deliberately little here to suggest that decade apart from the odd text reference.
Instead, McKintosh has rightly chosen to create something that looks long-standing in both the set and costumes, built at any time in the last 100 years, dominated by an ancient cooking range and fireplace, and added to by the occupants -while the 60s may be raging elsewhere, here modernity and history have little place. And for a production that makes its central love story with virtually no physical contact so poignant, this agelessness adds to its power and effect on the viewer.
Hastie’s approach draws out some concept of contrasting worlds, of the comparative social freedoms and variety of London life, referenced in one of George’s later conversations, and the more contained existence of the Yorkshire farmer, but it’s not a point that’s laboured. In some ways the differences between George and John are the very reason they are drawn to one another and why they are a perfect match, but – like Laura and Alec – it’s circumstance and duty that forces them apart, an inability to take the ultimate disruptive step, to pull down their existing lives for one another. Fear not difference divides them.
Ben Batt as George, slowly builds a sense of inner turmoil, and the importance of the deep-rooted connection not just to John, but to his mother and to his community. What begins as expected – a quiet no-nonsense Yorkshireman – soon flourishes as performing in the Mystery Play gives him confidence, and a taste of wider purpose. Batt reveals George’s essential fragility and vast emotional life in stages as we see the happiness performing brings him comes with the pain of discovering a talent too late for it to change his world.
As the plot unfolds, Batt starts to retreat once more behind his stone wall as the disappointments stack-up, but by this time it’s clear to the audience the raging feeling underneath. There is a claim to home, family and decency in his character that he is powerless to resist, which builds well to a final meeting with John where the pain of allowing himself to open-out only to be stung becomes incredibly affecting in Batt’s wonderful performance as he struggles to reclose his heart and face a future of lonely expectation and duty.
In Jonathan Bailey’s performance John is much easier in his own skin, with fewer ties to a sense of place and purpose than George which gives him a transitory feel. Though wedded to the idea of London and the development of his career which he is as unwilling to sacrifice as his lover, John feels instantly at home in Mother’s cottage, thrilled by the location and the ancient authenticity of George’s family home, welcoming him warmly in.
Yet John is also unable to quite grasp the importance of the Yorkshire family, and in Bailey’s equally contained performance, there is a sense of John wanting to improve George’s life by rescuing him and freeing his talent for performance and expression. Bailey demonstrates that for John artistic freedom and pursuit sit above anything else, and, with no mention of family or home of his own, John cannot imagine any longstanding commitment that would remove him from his world. While the feeling between both men is clearly tangible and heart-warming, they can only ever be ‘visitors’ in each other’s experiences.
Despite George’s essential loneliness, his home is never empty with a succession of people popping by throughout the play, and no one is alone in the kitchen for more than a few moments. Lesley Nicol brings subtly to the role of George’s Mother, a hearty woman whose continually tiredness is covered up by her own sense of duty, a need to keep house for her working son. There is an ease between the two that allows Nicol to exert a domestic care but also shows she is a stalwart of her community, attending church and supplying endless cups of tea that no one gets to finish.
Lucy Black as George’s sister Barbara, Matthew Wilson as her husband Arthur and Katie West as neighbour Doreen add texture, helping to create a solid sense of local life beyond the kitchen that includes working on the farm and going to one of the local pubs. West’s Doreen is also George’s alternative life, someone he could marry largely because the circumstances are right, they are the same age more or less and both essentially kind-hearted. But Black and West have a lovely all-female duologue in which they gently hint that they know and accept George’s true inclinations, and there is some well-played ambiguity as to whether Doreen will fully accept her lot.
There is real tenderness in Hastie’s production of The York Realist which runs through this well-realised one hour and 45-minute show. There is an interval and despite its short run-time, this one feels necessary, giving the audience a chance to reflect, allowing the various ideas of place, home and identity to sink in before the conclusion. Nothing feels rushed, allowing this beautifully sad production to really touch the heart. A modern classic and a Yorkshire Brief Encounter indeed.