Prospect and retrospect are plaited together most seductively in Peter Gill's new play, The York Realist, which has now arrived, in his own strongly cast English Touring Theatre production, at the Royal Court. As far as prospect goes, the drama toys with one of our simplest, oldest desires: to see two powerfully attractive performers (here, both male) kiss on stage. In terms of retrospect, the play, set in the early Sixties, with England on the brink of fast social change, offers the pleasures of principled and imaginative cultural hindsight.
Unusually for this author, whose plays tend to divide into Welsh working-class or metropolitan bourgeois dramas, we find ourselves in rural Yorkshire. John (Richard Coyle), a young middle-class Londoner, has gone up North to work as assistant director on the traditional amateur staging in York of the Mystery Plays. He falls edgily into an affair with one of the cast, George (Lloyd Owen), a farm labourer with a natural talent for acting and an ailing mother (Sheila Reid) to whose apron-strings he is tied. But when, with her death, his bonds are cut, he still can't bring himself to move to London and live with John, who now has a job in a theatre that sounds suspiciously like the Royal Court.
One is reminded slightly of Philip Larkin's poem "Annus Mirabilis": "Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (Which was rather late for me) – / Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles' first LP". One of the play's ironies is that his sexuality is not a problem for George. His neuroses lie elsewhere. In his twenties, he contends that he has left it too late to take up acting as a career and does not want to be a professional Northerner. The play, which subtly addresses the question of who owns art, contrasts this anxious diffidence with the culture that gave rise to the Mystery Plays. But Gilman scrup- ulously refuses to pander to the myth that medieval society was unified in the creation and consumption of the drama. When George's nephew asks: "Was there a farm labourers' play?", the innocent query highlights the fact that the Mysteries were a product of the towns and the province of skilled workers.
The accents are so pronounced (in every sense) that the production sometimes veers dangerously close to seeming like a Victoria Wood skit. But there's no mistaking the play for a repro period piece. For instance, a play back then would have had to make an issue of the homosexuality. Now, by contrast, Gill is free to be open about how for some people, their sexual orientation is not the primary hang-up, even if they are oppressed.
My favourite scene is the beautifully observed sequence when the family comes back from seeing the Mysteries. Without a trace of either condescension or reverse sucking-up, Gill shows us people who have clearly enjoyed a profound experience – a point all the more eloquent because of their awkward inarticulateness. It tells you more about the power of great art than a year's worth of Late Review.
"It was very Yorkshire, wasn't it? Not that I mind," declares the mother (a lovely performance from Anne Reid). The York Realist is full of such unforced distillations of its cultural wisdom. It certainly whets the appetite for the Peter Gill season, which starts in May, at the Sheffield Crucible.
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