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The York Realist review at Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘a tender love story’

Ben Batt and Jonathan Bailey in The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse, London. Photo: Johan Persson Ben Batt and Jonathan Bailey in The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse, London. Photo: Johan Persson
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Peter Gill’s 2001 play is a masterpiece of subtext – appropriate for a play about directors and actors since subtext is their stock-in-trade.

Set on a remote Yorkshire farm in the 1960s and depicting the tender relationship between two young men, Robert Hastie’s quiet production lets its many silences speak for themselves.

John has come up from London to assist on a production of the 14th century York Mystery Plays. Farm labourer George hasn’t been turning up to rehearsals, blaming his ailing mother (a wonderfully warm Lesley Nicol). Amid the rhythms of country life – cups of tea, poorly calfs – they start a relationship.

Ben Batt’s George is a brick wall, reluctant to express emotion, but also completely comfortable in his love for another man. The expressions on Jonathan Bailey’s face, as John when George first propositions him, are masterfully complex, a conflicting mix of fear, excitement, disbelief, reluctance, besides something animal.

Cultures clash on Peter McKintosh’s gorgeously detailed farmhouse set, which includes a stunning vista of the Yorkshire Moors above the stage. The play’s great beauty is that the barriers to George and John’s romance are nothing to do with sexuality. They’re about class, physical and figurative distance, and how deep their roots lie in either the city or the country. George refuses to move to London to become an actor, despite his natural talent, and John won’t relocate up North.

In the hands of someone lesser than Hastie that voluminous subtext would be glossed over and lost. Here, though, despite a fiddly production that fusses too much over superfluous props, the play’s many silences are taut, full of pregnant promise that the 1960s would be a decade of social change, and retrospective bitterness at how far we’ve got to go.

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Robert Hastie directs a beautifully detailed revival of Peter Gill's tender love story