Peter Gill’s The York Realist is a good love story – and a great break-up one. If you’ve recently hit the no-return place in a relationship, slamming up against the wall of incompatible jobs, locations, outlooks, souls, whatever really, it might be best to give Robert Hastie’s meticulously planned revival at the Donmar Warehouse a miss. Or perhaps not. If you’re in possession of a masochistic need to have your chest hollowed out a little, why not purchase a ticket and go see reflected back from the stage that great emptiness marking an ending?
Pre-interval, The York Realist plays out as a classy and neat traditional drama. Save for the two central characters being gay, there’s little revisionist or revolutionary about the set-up. Peter McKintosh’s set design encapsulates this perfectly perfect theatrical picture, re-creating in painstaking detail the scrupulously clean Yorkshire farmhouse with slate floor, cosily imposing iron stove and knickknacks upon knickknacks – little details that feel just so.
Electric lights switch on and off in the hallway, water comes from the tap, and when the dawn light strikes a line straight through the kitchen window, it’s the exact cold white-yellow that should be bottled for use in SAD lamps. The whole scene is backdropped with a view across the Yorkshire moors, bands of mist and rain sweeping across the ridge of the hills, distorting the skyline Turner-style.
The costumes are a similarly nuanced mismatch of intarsia knitwear, tweed and hats suitable for chapel. They continually reveal, at a glance, so much: the brown shoes that end the otherwise black funeral outfit of Doreen (Katie West), or the antiquated farm boy clothes of George (Ben Batt) in contrast to the hip 60s togs of Londoner John (Jonathan Bailey).
We read the image and the image is perfect. Without a snippet of dialogue or sound you could follow the story and read each scene with accuracy – and indeed, Hastie’s production is full of silences and pauses; the quietness of the wind-beaten hill, not the countryside racket of honking geese and barking dogs. The image is perfect, the production beautiful and I stand drinking wine at the interval thinking: yes, but is it more than just nice? More than just a good production of a good play?
And then yes, it is. Because Gill’s play turns into a swallow-hard, realistic tale of when love doesn’t conquer all. Sexuality is, of course, a part of Gill’s play, but it’s not being gay that ultimately keeps George and John from being together. It’s the all-too-familiar mixture of two individuals wanting different lives: John wants to stay in London working as a theatre director, George wants to stay on the farmland. In this respect, The York Realist is not just about love, but our mysterious connections to the landscape and the land we walk on. The importance of location in creating ‘home’ and ‘self’.
Batt and Bailey perform this coming-together and tearing-apart with understatement and poise. Like the scenery that surrounds them, there’s a novel’s worth of nuance to be read in single facial expressions, miniscule touches and the square dance movements that place them next to and apart from each other. It’s all very human. Very normal. And that’s why it hurts.
Happy Valentines Day.
The York Realist is on until 24 March 2018 at the Donmar Warehouse. Click here for more details.