It is lucky the Trade Descriptions Act does not apply to the theatre. The promotional material for Peter Gill's new play claims that The York Realist "makes us think about the depth of class allegiances, the strength of the family and the origins and ownership of art itself". As overblown claims for mediocre plays go, this is definitely in a league of its own. Set in rural Yorkshire in the early 1960s, the thinly plotted story focuses on farm labourer George (Lloyd Owen), who lives a comfortable bachelor existence with his mother (Anne Reid).
Having volunteered for an amateur production of the York Mystery Plays, George comes into contact with John (Richard Coyle), a metropolitan assistant director, and the two plunge into a passionate affair. But when the Mystery Plays production comes to an end, George refuses John's invitation to move to London and become an actor. Contrary to what the publicity material suggests, however, George's decision not to act professionally is not rooted in class or family allegiance, but in the far more superficial – and far more practical – fact that he feels he is too old to learn to speak differently, and would therefore be frustratingly pigeonholed forever by his broad Yorkshire burr.
Set in a traditional box set, this play might have been innovative, outrageous and possibly world-changing if it had been staged at the Royal Court in the early 1960s – which is where Gill earned his theatrical spurs. In 2001, it feels very dated. Its style harks back to the time when, as the programme records, the Royal Court "astonished its audiences by the passionate rawness of its work". However, playwrights have taken passion, rawness and the depiction of homosexual love on stage a long way in the intervening 40 years, and as a result The York Realist is left looking flaccid, anachronistic and ultimately pointless.
Its strengths lie in an area incidental to the central love story: the tangential references to the seismic social changes underway in Britain in the early 1960s, with the entry into the average home of washing machines and indoor lavatories and the abandonment of an entirely rural lifestyle. The family scenes which make reference to this topic are filled with energy, life and humour, aided by Anne Reid's magical talent for wistful comedy. But as soon as there are only two characters on stage – particularly John and George – it is as if the power has been switched off. Scenes which should crackle with emotion are strangely deadened. All too often the dialogue consists of anodyne conversation that should pres- umably throb with underlying intensity, but has all the dramatic energy of two strangers conversing at a bus-stop.
Gay sex was still a crime in the early 1960, and John and George are conducting their love affair within an extremely conservative, rural community. Yet they seem very relaxed about their homosexuality. If this is a true reflection of the times, it might at least mean that The York Realist makes some small contribution to the archives of gay history. Apart from that, the play is a flimsy and rather clinical love story that lacks either the emotive flair of the Angry Young Men or the energy of present-day playwrights.
The York Realist will be at the Royal Court, London (020-7565 5000) from 4 Jan to 9 FebReuse content