Crucible Theatre, Sheffield – until 7 April 2018
Robert Hastie once said (in an interview with Matt Trueman) that the director’s role is “to provide the clearest conduit between a writer and an actor”. Such an approach, effectively of getting in the way as little as possible, perfectly suits the prosaic dialogue of Peter Gill’s 2001 play The York Realist.
Set in 1960s Yorkshire, the play is interested in the developing relationship of farmhand George (Ben Batt) and assistant director from London John (Jonathan Bailey). What gives the play its maturity is its focus on the tangible aspects of character and setting, and its refusal of the facile or formulaic. Hastie matches the play’s gravity with a production that embraces silence and precision without overplaying them. The result is a production where the simplest tucking in of chairs around a table or the silhouette from a landing light can evoke beautiful theatre.
The play is set in George and his mum’s farmhouse, a place of work, home and gathering for George’s sister and her family, as well as family friend Doreen. It mostly occurs in linear time (although this is occasionally disrupted by moments of temporal overlapping so we are teased by the play beginning with a moment from a later scene) which is stretched out in the limited space of Peter McKintosh’s meticulously wrought design.
We hear that it changes offstage overtime but otherwise it remains a traditional, rough-around-the-edges, rural farmhouse, complete with a range, wooden beams and stone bricks. Place is important in Gill’s play in an intangible way. John is fascinated so much by the earth, stone and wood of George’s home, which is inseparable from who George is and what he values most, that I at first wondered if it was the novelty of ‘being up north’ with which John had fallen in love.
But Gill, Hastie, Batt and Bailey afford the characters much more depth. Bailey’s John (who visits George to persuade him to return to rehearsals for The York Mystery Plays) is polite and often tries to impress. I got the feeling that his breathlessness was as much from the nerves of attraction as it was from the walk up to the house. Batt fully invests in George: he’s the strong farmhand with a matter-of-fact turn of phrase, as well as surprisingly open about his sexuality, saying that ‘it’s never really been a problem for me’. But he’s also bashful and sensitive as well as occasionally reticent when talking about leaving home, even after his mother’s death when there are no responsibilities keeping him there.
The rest of the characters are by no means collateral. Lesley Nicol has great comic timing as George’s mother as well as finding the right balance between showing her love and pragmatism. ‘Didn’t God have a good voice’ she exclaims, filling the silence with her appraisal of the performance of The York Mystery Plays. Katie West is also very good as Doreen, slowly realising that George will never propose to her. There is a complex web of emotions in Gill’s play, such as unrequited love and the rejection of one’s feelings. But, most of all, it’s interested in George’s feelings, especially when he realises that there still lies uncertainties about who he is and where he belongs. In this great play, Gill evokes a very concrete world in which characters wrestle with more elusive questions. Foxes, indeed, may have their dens and birds have their nests, ‘but the son of man/ Has not where his head may rest’.