Lawrence's men in love
by Peter Gill
Royal Court, London *****
Review by Georgina Brown, Mail on Sunday, 13 January 2002
Early days as it is, I might well have just seen the best new play of the year, The York Realist, beautifully written by Peter Gill. He first attracted attention at the Royal Court in the Sixties for his productions of D.H. Lawrence's plays charting working-class life in the Nottinghamshire mining community.
Fascinatingly, his new play, which opened at the Royal Court this week, has a strong whiff of Lawrence — its themes are desire, love, class, roots and a powerful sense of place — and harks back to the tradition of the Court's grittily naturalistic kitchen-sink dramas.
Indeed, there's a sink in the scullery of the farm labourer's cottage where the play is set and where Lloyd Owen's gorgeously earthy, artless George attempts to wash the Yorkshire soil from his arms. (Very symbolic this.)
The haltingly awkward exchange between two young men ('Well', 'Yes', 'Aye', 'Yeah') which begins the piece might, in a different context, be almost a parody of those plays in which Alan Bates or Tom Courtenay or some other rugged actor from up north played an inarticulate working-class northerner struggling to express his feelings.
Here, the two young men overwhelmed by their strong, complex emotions are George and John (Richard Coyle). George, the farm labourer, meets townie John when he takes part in a production of The York Mystery Plays for which John is assistant director.
The flashback that follows charts their love affair. Tentative John loves the Yorkshireness of George, not only his knowledge of and affinity with the countryside but also the way his accent makes the play sound right.
The relationship blossoms largely thanks to the bus service being what it is in rural Yorkshire, providing ample excuse for John to bed down with George in the tiny cottage.
It doesn't appear to cross the mind of George's chapel-going widowed mother that anything is going on. She may, of course, be casting a blind eye, but I'm convinced that when she says early on, 'I'm your mother, I know what you like,' she's referring to his partiality to Carnation milk.
For it's not the narrow-minded prejudices of the community that come between the men, but the couple's conflicting aspirations. George can't uproot himself to become an actor and 'be some northerner as a job'; John may be drawn to the romance of country living, but there's the bleak reality of an outside loo in winter and the distance from London's arty Sixties scene to consider.
There's a wonderfully funny scene when the extended family comes back for a cup of tea after the play. ('It was all very Yorkshire' ... 'Jesus Christ wasn't Yorkshire'... 'Yes, he was'...)
But the real skill of this piece comes from Gill's extraordinarily powerful creation of authentic atmosphere and relationships.
George and John's gentle yet scorching attraction for one another is unmistakable, but so, too, is George's affection for his frail mother and the dogged devotion towards him of Doreen, his spinster neighbour, who is determined to make her pastry and ironing indispensable.
This is engrossing theatre, sensationally performed.
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