The York Realist.
The Donmar Warehouse
14 February 2018
It’s fitting that the Donmar Warehouse should revive Peter Gill’s beautiful play in LGBT History month. Set in the early 1960s, men like George and John would have faced imprisonment for falling in love and wanting to be together. They come from different worlds, George a farm worker, John an assistant director working on a production of the York Mystery plays, being staged with local amateurs like George in the cast. Set in a remote Yorkshire farmhouse, it finds a modern parallel with the independent hit film God’s Own Country, except Gill’s script is tenderer and the sexuality even more powerfully constrained by societal pressures. A man in overalls could become the homoerotic trend of the year.
The cast are flawless, as is Robert Hastie’s sensitive, pitch perfect direction. Ben Batt is outstanding as George, interestingly accepting of his sexuality, and seeming, initially, to have the upper hand in the relationship. He is a portrait of constrained masculinity and yearning, his true feelings battling against his role as a good son and community member. He is matched perfectly by Jonathan Bailey’s performance as John, cultured, London confident, seeing the beauty in nature that George has long ceased to notice. Their love is conveyed so subtly, through looks, the passing touch of a hand on a shoulder, turning away from other people to try and control their feelings- they never kiss, and the relationship is all the more powerful for that.
There are insinuations in the script that the other characters know George is gay, but turn a collective blind eye providing he doesn’t cause a scandal and knows where the limits lie. Lesley Nicol is excellent as Mother, warm and down to earth, rooted in the traditions of family and motherhood, illness slowly taking her over. George’s sister, Barbara, (Lucy Black), knows George isn’t “the marrying kind”, but still fails to warn off nice, religious and lovelorn Doreen, the excellent Katie West. Matthew Wilson provides Yorkshire bluffness and caring as Arthur, and Brian Fletcher is adorable as teenager Jack, on the verge of becoming a man yet having no idea what to do with his life, except, like his mother, he wants to move on.
It’s a world of Chapel, Carnation milk and a worrying obsession with “doing the pots”, superbly realised in Peter McKintosh’s design. Mother’s death should provide George with the release he needs to live his life, yet he cannot leave his world, and John cannot live with him in the cottage in Yorkshire-that would arouse too much suspicion. The final scene is deeply moving, and, even though you curse Doreen’s timing, you don’t hate her as she is yearning for love as much as the men are. It’s a beautiful time capsule of lost love, and Gil’s script brims with tenderness. In 2012, Gill directed a beautiful production of Robert Holman’s Making noise Quietly at this venue. And that sums up Gill’s work- he makes noise quietly, yet his work stays with you forever.