Gentle and tender, this is a tale of two young men falling in love – taking a humble farm labourer living in a cottage with his mother in Yorkshire, introducing a well-educated assistant theatre director from London and throwing in a heap of sexual tension. The standard assumption would be that the latter would seduce the former, but The York Realist is a play that focuses on character, not stereotypes. Put forward by his adoring admirer, the coy, mousey Doreen, the young farmer George joins the production company for the York Mystery Plays – medieval plays that represent bible stories. Here he meets John and, seemingly frightened of addressing how his feelings for John develop, stops going to rehearsals. When John travels to George’s cottage to persuade him to return to work, their relationship begins.
Constrained by the laws and social constraints of the sixties they cannot live together in Yorkshire and, despite his talent as an actor, George argues that his accent and lack of education will leave him isolated in London. The truth is that George has used his ailing mother as an excuse for not developing his talents and, when she dies, finds other reasons to remain in the county he has lived all his life. This makes for a heart-breaking story, and Peter Gill writes with such tenderness and compassion that we maintain sympathy with all throughout. Ben Blatt initially displays confidence and bravado as farmer George, but when the tables are turned and he is pressured to escape his environment his shuddering determination to resist is exquisitely painful. Jonathan Bailey is similarly strong as John, and we never have any doubts as to why he is repeatedly drawn back to George. Lesley Nichol (as George’s mother) and Katie West (as Doreen) both display their loyalty and unerring love for George with great subtlety. These characters have depth – they are not simple foils, being smart enough to be aware of the relationship yet not letting it undermine their loyalty.
While The York Realist describes a time from which we have since progressed from, it is not in the least bit dated. Ultimately it is the story of the town mouse and the country mouse, the difficulties of escaping our roots and our environment, and the sad restrictions that society can put upon genuine love.