The York Realist at Donmar Warehouse
Boy, oh boy, oh boy. The York Realist is the kind of play that takes your heart in its hand and begins to squeeze, gently at first, until the sadness of it all is just about unbearable.
It’s the 60s, and on a farm a field’s walk away from the closest village – let alone anything larger – George (Ben Batt) lives with his mother (Lesley Nicol), rising at the crack of dawn every day to work the land, too tired to participate in a local performance of the York Mystery Plays. That is, until the assistant director John (Jonathan Bailey) turns up at his door, pleading with him to return to rehearsals. From here Peter Gill weaves something quite exquisite: a subtle discussion of class, regionalism and sexuality that hums with an acute sense of longing.
Robert Hastie’s unfussy production for the Donmar Warehouse – which heads to the Sheffield Crucible at the end of March – puts Gill’s beautiful non-linear structure front and centre. Initially, the play can feel a bit “eeh by gum” broad comedy, especially given the setting of Peter McKintosh’s slavishly recreated – if admittedly spot-on – country kitchen. However, you certainly notice the absence and importance of the family’s rhythmic, repetitive, but ultimately comforting conversations when they begin to disappear in the final third.
This loss also changes the tenor of George and John’s interactions. In the first act their hushed flirtations away from the hubbub are a chance for George to uncoil and relax, after being so often drowned out by his family. Yet in the second half, the scenes between the pair not only reinforce George’s loneliness, but reveal the fatal gulf in perspective between the two men. What’s really interesting is that despite the repressive era in which the play is set, the disintegration of their relationship appears more to do with a fundamental, seemingly unbridgeable, gap between their worldviews than the strictures of the time (though that inevitably plays its part).
While the entire ensemble is great, notably Bailey’s tender John and Nicol’s slowing matriarch, you’ll struggle to find a performance to match Ben Batt’s anywhere in London. His body language is fascinating: with the exception of one sexy pre-bed discussion with John, George is permanently tense, all stiff neck and hunched shoulders. He is a man bent rigid by the weight of keeping everything in, a man hiding behind a cold facade that becomes more and more gut-wrenching the closer it comes to crumbling.
The York Realist is at the Donmar Warehouse from 8th February until 24th March 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.