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Review: The York Realist (Donmar Warehouse)

Robert Hastie directs Peter Gill's 2001 play

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Peter Gill's drama might as well be subtitled "It's grim up North." Written in 2001, it evokes life in the late 1960s in a tied farm cottage near York, where the height of excitement is an evening trip to a fellowship meeting.

This is a world of outside toilets, and endless cups of tea, one where a trip to the pub, a washing machine and a foreign holiday are all viewed with suspicion. "Spain? What's wrong with Bridlington?" someone exclaims at one point. It is a country of chapel, and hard labour, of limited expectations and quiet satisfactions. It is, bar the gay sex and the Yorkshire accents, a world which I recognise from my own Methodist childhood but it now seems as far away as the moon.

It is in this constrained setting that George, a handsome farm worker who has a bit part in the famous York Mystery Plays, meets the enthusiastic assistant director John and with aching tenderness and absolute simplicity begins a relationship with him.

What's wonderful about Gill's play is that the barriers between their love are not those you expect. This may be a narrow world but it has a quiet tolerance; something else I recognise from my childhood. George accepts he is gay; his doting mother either doesn't know or doesn't care. His sister Barbara recognises he is "not the marrying kind" and the ever-hopeful Doreen, a woman who walks into a room saying she'll "not be long" in it, knows she can make his tea but never cure his sadness. Instead, it is George's sense of place that keeps them apart. He is as tied to the land and to his home as a bonded labourer; the modern world has no meaning for him. What's more, his judgement of what would happen to him if he left for London has the ring of reality.

All of this is powerfully conveyed in this sensitive production, carefully directed by (Yorkshireman) Robert Hastie to give full weight to every subtle inflection of behaviour. He is much helped by Peter McKintosh's beautifully detailed one-room setting, which has the glory of the Yorkshire moors unfolding overhead. Its textures are all closely observed in the rugs and carpets, the cloth coats and faded silk scarves. The cooking range which the mother regards as an inconvenience and John as a period feature shows the chasm between them. So does his gift of a shirt from a trendy boutique, compared with the heavy flannel George normally wears.

And the superb performances have exactly the same sense of texture and feel. There's not a character on this stage that you don't care about, from Brian Fletcher (making his professional debut) as the gawky teenager Jack, all elbows and "dunnos" to Katie West's anxious to please Doreen, in her sensible shoes, snatching what little happiness she can wherever she finds it, to Lucy Black's bustling Barbara and Matthew Wilson's bluff Arthur. Lesley Nichol, as the mother, finds just the right note of reticent selflessness.

There is a marvellous moment at the start of the second half where they all return from their trip to see the Mysteries, exhilarated and enraptured by what they have seen. In between the joy of their conversation – "Jesus was good" – there is an overwhelming sense of the transformative power of art and just for a moment you imagine that George and John can find a way through to a fulfilled and happy life of their own.

Ben Batt as George and Jonathan Bailey as John are heartbreaking as they chart the ways that that cannot be. Batt has an extraordinary ability to channel emotion without changing his expression, but the moment when his face crumples as he realises what he has lost is devastating. Bailey is equally affecting, tentatively touching George's back with delighted affection when he thinks no one is looking.

In a play of nuance, where more is expressed than can ever be said, both men are utterly superb, holding the kind but sad heart of an overwhelmingly moving revival of a play that forms a great tribute to Gill's profound writing in the year of his 79th birthday.

The York Realist runs at the Donmar Warehouse from 13 February to 24 March, and at Sheffield Crucible from 27 March to 7 April.