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The York Realist
by Lizzie Loveridge

John: Well, we might as well say it. You can't leave, can you?
George: No. I can't.
John: I don't think it's because she's ill, see. I think it would be the same if she wasn't ill.

 The York Realist
Richard Coyle as John
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)

The York Realist is a love story of exceptional quality. Set in the 1960s the lovers are a young assistant theatre director and a Yorkshire farmhand, both of whom are taking part in the York Mystery Plays. Their relationship, beautiful as it is in the short term, is destined not to survive their differing life demands. The farmhand, George (Lloyd Owen) is the York Realist. He is the man who lends weight to the play because he is like the original tradesmen players in mystery plays, those medieval plays based on the Bible and put on by a community of guildsmen,. His realism is not just confined to the authentic accent and background he brings to the mystery play, but in his perception of how far his relationship with John (Richard Coyle) can go.

The play is structured with fractured chronology so that scenes from the past segue with those from the less distant past, but the writing and direction make it clear where we are. The opening scenes show John calling on George after an absence of several years but these merge into the past for a retelling of their relationship. George is probably in his early thirties and lives with his mother (Anne Reid), who is in poor health. After George misses several rehearsals for the cycle of mystery plays in nearby York, he is visited by John who wants to persuade him to return. The two men discover their mutual attraction and it is George, the older man, who takes the lead in initiating a sexual relationship which takes place, in the best of taste, off stage.

The rest of the play introduces George's sister, Barbara (Caroline O'Neill) and her husband, Arthur (Ian Mercer), their teenage son, Jack (Felix Bell) and Doreen (Wendy Nottingham), friend of George's mother, spinster and hopeful of a proposal of marriage from George. Later the whole family go to the plays in a brilliantly written scene of great interest to "theatre people". There are scenes following the funeral of George's mother when once more John visits the Yorkshire tied cottage. And finally the play ends where it began, when a few years later, John, involved in a touring theatre production in the area, revisits his lover.

The performances are outstanding, natural and unhurried - Lloyd Owen's terse and gruff farm labourer is able to express his sexuality and Richard Coyle's middle class theatre director is affable, patient, hopeful and wistful. When George's feelings are in turmoil, he sits stock still but his eyes move frenetically. Anne Reid is effective as the widowed mother, not wanting to be a burden to her son, at times, seeming to set him up with the bossy, marriage seeking Doreen, at others, seeming to understand his sexual leanings but never saying a thing about them. Wendy Nottingham is excellent as the brisk, all-baking, all-organising, chapel-going friend of George's mother with her sights on George. I liked too Felix Bell's cameo as George's comic reading nephew, the next generation who will break with the farming tradition.

The set is a box cottage, dominated by the old stove range, with a kitchen to the rear. The designer has not been afraid to use furniture earlier than the 1960s period and on display are china dogs and treasured possessions. The lighting is subtle and natural. Peter Gill's writing is full of authentic Yorkshire expression aand the texture of the play is memorable, the characters believable and rich. Director Gill is not afraid to slow the play down to the point where we can feel the nerves of the new lovers, their hesitation with each other and their need to be alone together. The York Realist is an engrossing and delicate drama which enhances the London theatre scene and deserves to find a longer run somewhere.

The York Realist
Written and directed by Peter Gill

With: Lloyd Owen, Richard Coyle, Anne Reid, Caroline O'Neill, Ian Mercer, Wendy Nottingham, Felix Bell
Design: William Dudley
Lighting Design: Hartley TA Kemp
Composer: Terry Davies
Running time: Two hours 10 minutes with one interval
An English Touring Theatre Production
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 9th February 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 11th January 2002 performance at The Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, The Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW3

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