The intimate Donmar Warehouse lends itself perfectly to the equally intimate kitchen setting of Peter Gill’s play, The York Realist. Set in the sixties, this understated, but pitch perfect play concerns a gay couple with totally different lifestyles. George (Ben Batt), a farmer, lives with his ailing mother (Lesley Nicol) in a remote part of Yorkshire, whilst John (Jonathan Bailey), an aspiring theatre director from London, is temporarily in York directing a production of The York Mystery Plays. They get to know one another as George has a small part in the production. Surprisingly it is the working-class country boy who is completely at ease with his sexual proclivities from the get go (at least in John’s presence). Whereas shy, middle-class John is more hesitant in accepting the sexual charge between the two of them.
When the play opens, George’s mother has just died and he receives an unexpected visit from John who is back in York for a week working at the Theatre Royal. We then go back in time to try and explain the palpable tension that now exists between the two men and why, despite the release from being at his adored mother’s constant side, George is still unable to fly his rather ramshackle nest and move to a different existence with his lover. It’s not just the class divide that prevents the two ending up happy ever after, but the spiritual ties that tend to bind us to our roots, however much we often refuse to admit it.
Robert Hastie directs the play with subtlety and charm and, unlike so many plays with a gay theme, there is no physical sexuality on stage. Looks and words are all that is needed to produce the obvious sexual chemistry between the two men. And due to the short distance between audience and cast, we’re privy to every nuance between Batt and Bailey, who are so beguiling in their roles, that their chemistry doesn’t just smoulder but ignites.
Ben Batt is every inch the beefcake farm labourer who only really comes alive when his friend is around. In the presence of his sister and son-in-law and, more importantly Doreen (the equally impressive Katie West) who so obviously carries an enormous torch for him, he retreats into his shell, becoming laconic and brooding. At the end of the play, his repressed agony at letting John go, is desperately moving.
The equally well cast Jonathan Bailey, perfectly captures the rather more uptight townie, all oohs and aahs at the rustic charm of the cottage kitchen, especially the old-fashioned kitchen range. All nervous laughter and ‘rabbit in the headlight’ stares, his timidity causes the two men to swap roles and allow George to take the ‘director’ mantle.
Whether or not George’s mother realises her son’s preference for men is never entirely sure, but Lesley Nicol infuses her character with warm, no nonsense Yorkshire charm. Equally affecting are the remaining cast, Brian Fletcher as the impudent, head in the clouds nephew and Lucy Black playing George’s obviously unfulfilled married sister, Barbara, married to Matthew Wilson’s Arthur.
The play will soon be transferring to the Sheffield Crucible, where I’m sure it will get the appreciative Yorkshire audience it deserves. Before it does, for ninety-five minutes, we southerners are transported to the hills and dales of their county in the most realistic way possible.