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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The York Realist
Donmar Theatre  February-March 2018

In 2002 I was a lone voice in not liking Peter Gill's play, which was enthusiastically praised by most other critics. Well, sixteen years have passed and I have evidently become wiser, because this revival shows me strengths in the drama I hadn't seen before. 

It is not a great play, but it is a solidly good one. 

At the drama's centre is a love affair between two unlikely men, a Yorkshire farm hand and a London theatre director. 

The Londoner is up north to be assistant director of the York Mystery Plays and the farmer is one of the locals playing small roles in the epic. (Gill's title, the name given by scholars to the unknown creator of the Mystery Plays, can be applied to more than one of this play's characters.) 

The love story has a few surprises in it, notably that it is the farmer who is the seducer, but it is otherwise fairly predictable and not especially interesting. What wasn't clear to me in 2002 is that there is a lot more going on in the play, that the new director Robert Hastie and his cast bring more to the fore. 

The most moving is an unexpected variant on a theme from Terrence Rattigan, the way life can force emotions on people that they do not have the faculties to cope with. 

To Rattigan it was British good taste and the stiff upper lip that were the emotional handicaps. Peter Gill shows us that the farmer's at-first-admirable self-sufficiency and stolid calm can be just as crippling. 

He discovers himself equally unprepared for the intensity of his attraction to the Londoner, his unhappiness when the affair must end and, in an entirely different sphere, his grief at his taken-for-granted mother's death. 

You can almost sense Rattigan in the wings saying 'I told you so.' 

The play has other thought- and emotion-inspiring themes, including the nature of Home. Neither man can really consider relocating to the other's part of the country, because both are not just happiest in their own worlds but define themselves by where they fit in. 

And there are questions raised, largely through secondary characters (who seem a lot more relevant and not just local colour background in this production), about whether being content with what you've got can really be dismissed as just settling. 

Jonathan Bailey as the Londoner and particularly Ben Batt as the farmer make us believe and feel for the jumble of emotions that is new to both of them. 

In the excellent supporting cast Katie West deserves particular credit for not letting the local girl who fruitlessly loves the farmer become either pitiable or ridiculous, instead making her an exemplum of the play's insight that finding happiness in what is possible is better than reaching for the impossible.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The York Realist - Donmar Theatre 2018  
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