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REVIEW: The York Realist at Sheffield’s Crucible

Ben Batt as George in The York Realist, starring alongside Downton Abbey's Lesley Nicol as his mum
Ben Batt as George in The York Realist, starring alongside Downton Abbey's Lesley Nicol as his mum

A production of Peter Gill’s poignant and funny play, in a collaborative production by Sheffield Theatres and the Donmar Warehouse, has opened at the Crucible.

The York Realist follows a season of five plays by Peter Gill in Sheffield a few years ago, and last year’s haunting version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in the Studio Theatre.

The play is set in the interior of a cottage on a remote farm in Yorkshire. It’s immaculately designed by Peter McKintosh – with a wide video screen above the cottage showing a northern country scene of great beauty and wildness. A sense of intimacy is increased by a reduction in the usual size of the stage, but is counter-balanced by the size of the screen. A complex visual effect – macrocosm above, microcosm below.

It’s rooted in a sense of fracture – both personal and communal. The ‘realist’ of the title is George, who lives with his mother on the farm: he’s played with a sense of romantic yearning and desolating realism by Ben Batt. The play centres on his relationship with John, a southerner, living in London, but working as an assistant director on the York Mystery plays. He’s played with a combination of metropolitan charm and vulnerability by Jonathan Bailey. The high points of their relationship take place off-stage: the sex they have, and the performance of the Mystery plays – in which George excels. The scene in which George’s mother, his sister and brother-in- law, his nephew, ane Doreen, a family friend, return to the house after the performance, is wonderfully entertaining.

George’s mother (Lesley Nicol) exclaims: ‘It was very Yorkshire, wasn’t it? Not that I mind.’ Brian Fletcher, making his professional debut as Jack, George’s aimless nephew, almost steals the show with his callow glances at the rest of the cast. Katie West is memorable as the painfully gauchevDoreen, a sincere Christian who comes to accept that George ‘is not the marrying kind’, yetvremains devoted to the idea of serving his needs. The balance of power between George and John continually changes, and part of the charge in their dialogue lies in their use of words to evade what they mean rather than communicate directly.

The play was first performed in 2001. Since then, some of the fractures in Britain have remained the same; others have emerged and further complicated the fabric of community life. Gill’s play holds a mirror up to society. But it offers no solutions. The vision is a tragic one – even if, as in Chekhov, it’s laced with gentleness and humour.

The York Realist runs until Saturday, April 7.