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Review of The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse

Lesley Nicol (Mother) and Ben Batt (George) in The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Robert Hastie. Photo by Johan Persson
Lesley Nicol (Mother) and Ben Batt (George) in The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Robert Hastie. Photo by Johan Persson

The kitchen is the heart of the home. It is the place where we receive our sustenance and is the only room that everyone in a house is likely to visit and meet other members of the household. This is particularly true in a small property such as a cottage on a farm, the setting for Peter Gill’s 2001 play The York Realist which has been revived at the Donmar Warehouse.

Yorkshire farm labourer George (Ben Batt) lives in a tied cottage with his elderly Chapel going mother (Lesley Nicol) and his life pretty much revolves around the farming calendar. The two of them roll along nicely together. George’s mother is getting on in years and is not as fit as she once was, but she always ensures he has a hot meal waiting and a clean shirt ironed. There is only the two of them in the cottage but they are not lonely. George’s sister Barbara (Lucy Black) often pops in for a cup of tea as does her husband Arthur (Matthew Wilson), in search of a drinking partner or their son Jack (Brian Fletcher), often trying to get away from his mother or cadge a biscuit. Then there is Doreen (Katie West) a young lady who likes to look after people. She takes George’s mum to Chapel and gives her home-baked pies and things for their dinner. In Barbara’s opinion, Doreen has, to use an old saying, set her cap at George and pretty much everyone expects the taciturn Yorkshireman to marry the young lass. Doreen has already started to work on George, including getting him to audition for a role in a revival of the York Mystery Plays. Into this family comes young London boy John (Jonathan Bailey) the Assistant Director of the plays who wants to know why John has missed a couple of rehearsals.The rest of the family and Doreen try to convince George to return to the play and although it is outside his comfort zone, it’s obvious that George is very attracted to every aspect of the performance.

The York Realist is a really superb play in every aspect. The writing is absolutely first class as it interweaves a tale of opposites attracting along with the pressures of family and societal expectation. George and John couldn’t be more different from each other and yet it is obvious from the first moment that they are seen together the two of them have really deep feelings for each other. Their relationship sparkles and shines and is there for all to see, if not openly acknowledged. So while nothing is said, there is a tacit understanding that when John misses the bus and has to stay over, he doesn’t sleep on the floor. The problem is that both men are trapped in their lives. Whilst both enjoy visiting the other – George possibly to a lesser extent than John – but neither is able to throw their current lives away and make the move. There are so many layers to the writing, including some wonderful one-liners slipped into the script, that it really is a joy to hear.

Luckily, you don’t just get to hear it but also experience the story thanks to a marvelous cast who fit each of their roles like a hand in a glove. The two leads, in particular, are truly awesome in their roles. The enthusiasm exhibited by Jonathan Bailey after he has visited the farm for the first time is such a pleasure to see. Without moving, the audience could see the farm through John’s eyes – not as a set of fields and old dilapidated buildings in a remote part of Yorkshire – but as a wonderful place to be explored and waxed lyrical over. In complete contrast, Ben Batt’s George monosyllabic George lives in the real world, where a trip to London is scary and fun but the farm, and Yorkshire, will always be his home – even though he knows he is trapped and will have to go against everything he is, to survive. A quick word on Katie West’s Doreen here. It would be easy to overlook Doreen, a quiet self-effacing mousy woman who wouldn’t say boo to a goose but you have to remember, this is a Yorkshire lass and they are used to getting what they want. There is a wonderful moment near the end where Doreen looks at the range in the kitchen and, with steel in her voice, makes a comment that seals George and John’s fates irrevocably.

This really is a fantastic production on every level. Writing, acting and a superbly realistic set by Peter McKintosh come together so well in The York Realist to give the audience a truly excellent theatrical experience with plenty of food for thought to mull over on the journey home. 

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

‘I live here. I live here. You can’t see that, though. You can’t see it. This is where I live. Here.’
A cottage, 1960s Yorkshire. The York Mystery plays are in rehearsal. Farmhand George strains against his roots as a new world opens up to him.

Peter Gill’s influential play about two young men in love is a touching reflection on the rival forces of family, class and longing. 

Donmar Associate Robert Hastie returns following his previous productions My Night with Reg and Splendour for this timely revival from one of our greatest living playwrights. Ben Batt also returns to the Donmar following Making Noise Quietly alongside Lesley Nicol, who returns to the London stage and makes her Donmar debut.

A Donmar Warehouse and Sheffield Theatres co-production. The York Realist will also be performed at Sheffield Crucible from 27 March – 7 April 2018.

Cast includes Jonathan Bailey, Ben Batt, Lucy Black, Brian Fletcher, Lesley Nicol, Katie West and Matthew Wilson.

The York Realist
By Peter Gill
Director Robert Hastie
Designer Peter McKintosh
Lighting Designer Paul Pyant
Sound Designer Emma Laxton
Composer Richard Taylor

8 February 2018 – 24 March 2018
By Peter Gill


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