This is a love story, and so much more. George works on a remote Yorkshire farm in the 1960s. John is in town from London to directi a play with a cast local people, one of which happens to be George.
When work pressures force George to drop out of the play, John takes a long bus journey into the night to find George and drag him back into the production. George is a great actor, a natural talent but John’s interest is much more personal, even if he’s barely acknowledged that to himself.
It’s not too long before John contrives to miss the bus back and George follows him to the bedroom with a jar of Vaseline in the hand, whilst George’s mother sleeps next door.
The York Realist is a perfect revival of a play by Peter Gill first staged in 2001. This production brings a play about Yorkshire to a theatre in Yorkshire. It finds a warm and vibrant home at the wonderful Crucible, a theatre that champions Gill’s work.
The play is a masterclass in writing, a subtle, clever, complex, layered, deeply moving and brilliantly funny work. Gill creates a perfect evocation of the period, of the loving gruffness of the Yorkshire idiom and the pains and perils of falling in love.
The play also deals with class deftly and weaves it through the dynamic of the relationship between middle-class John and working-class George, the city mouse and the country mouse, the South and the North. They embody opposites attracting each other and their hidden affair is played out across the family dynamics and dramas of a number of years.
Ben Batt is superb as George, commanding and forthright one minute, then locked in the pain of attempting to surrender himself, and his sense of self, the next. Batt is such a strong performer that he can sit at a kitchen table in silence, in stillness, and yet the whole audience hears his pain ring out across the auditorium.
Jonathan Bailey matches him as the more mercurial John. Bailey provides a twitching, anxious, mannered foil to Batt. The connection between them is electric and when it breaks a light is truly dimmed. They capture perfectly the conflict at the heart of love, between two people from very different worlds, as self-preservation battles with all-consuming emotions.
Lesley Nicol plays George’s mother. Fresh from playing the cook in Downton Abbey, Nicol may again be playing a Yorkshire woman who spends most of her time in the kitchen, but this role gives real scope for her to show off her ample comic talents, and mix them with just the right degree of pathos and sincerity.
The rest of George’s family all make their mark. Katie West gives Doreen a moving simplicity. Lucy Black is pragmatic as George’s sister and Brian Fletcher make comic moments out of almost nothing as George’s nephew.
Robert Hastie directs with a detailed understanding of all the levels on which the play is working. He allows the domestic details that grounds the play to be enacted slowly and makes the actors reveal emotions without words in the many pauses that punctuate the play. The panorama of the Yorkshire countryside that sits above the beautifully detailed set by Peter McKintosh creates the sense of time and season vividly.
This play is funnier in Yorkshire than it was in London. Much of the class and regional conflict finds the ear of an audience who understand those struggles. The York Realist is a wonderfully acted love story, but it also reveals some painful truths about the relationship between class and access to culture that remain burning issues in the arts world today.
A stunning revival that reveals the enduring and profound nature of the play.
The York Realist is at Sheffield Crucible until 7 April.