Sssh! It's gay up North
by Peter Gill
Review by Benedict Nightingdale, The Times, 10 January 2002
Peter Gill's new play is a taciturn affair about not much
Talk about laconic. Peter Gill’s new play at the Royal Court, The York Realist, opens with the following exchange between a Yorkshire farmer and a visiting friend: “Well”, “Yes”, “Aye”, “Yeah” and a “Well then” that’s followed by a none-too-prolonged “Mm”. Since the characters are seldom in mortal danger of succumbing to logorrhoea afterwards, it’s clearly vital that we feel that their exchanges are highly charged or (if you’ll forgive a rude word) that they have a strong subtext. And so, much of the time, we do.
The point is that the time is the 1960s, the place a village where the Chapel rules supreme, and both Lloyd Owen’s George, who owns a herd of cows, and Richard Coyle’s John, who once cast him in a medieval miracle play in nearby York, are estranged lovers. Their secret passion — seriously dangerous then, but now no special shakes even in the frozen North — is what’s supposed to bring consistent tension to a play in which little else occurs.
As a sometime admirer of Gill’s terse, understated work, I’d like to be able to say it’s enough; but it isn’t.
The play’s jump of chronology between the later 1960s, when George’s old Mum has just died, and the early 1960s, when she’s still alive and doggedly making cups of tea, is as neatly managed by Gill the director as by Gill the dramatist. The lights whiten. The conversation George is having with the returning John in the present becomes one with his mother in the past. And on come the old lady’s daughter, grandson and neighbour to give her son’s impending love-affair a context. But contexts need to earn their dramatic keep, and this one doesn’t.
The Royal Court audience laughed a lot at the characters’ quaint north-of-Watford ways, at their provincial ignorance of miracle plays, and especially at Anne Reid as an amiably stolid Yorkshire Mum. When she said things like, “What would I do with a washing machine?” or “Where’s a glass for my teeth?”, you’d have thought she was Patricia Routledge coming up with a killer line in one of Alan Bennett’s funnier Talking Heads. But Northern people like plain speech, not Southern condescension, so I’ll be frank: to me, she and her brood are boring.
Yet you cannot accuse Gill or his cast, all of whom are members of English Touring Theatre, for lack of authenticity. For better or worse or both, they make you feel you are witnessing everyday people in a homely living room in the remote countryside. And I especially admired the way the younger actresses, Caroline O’Neill and Wendy Nottingham, suggest that they inwardly know yet cannot acknowledge just why an ambitious theatre director and a grimly taciturn farmer should become such improbably close friends.
As for the always excellent Owen and Coyle, they achieve something more. Their mere looks have you guessing the nature of their friendship long before Gill chooses to reveal it. They generate more and more intensity as John’s work in theatrical London and George’s attachment to rural Yorkshire separate them and the play moves towards what may or may not be a reconciliation. And, though the stakes are still not exactly sky-high, they succeed in making you care about their emotional prospects.
But is that enough to sustain a 130-minute play? For me, sadly, not quite.
Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd
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