Johan Persson

Tickles the funny bone and tears at the heart.

Playwright Peter Gill has a flair for the funny way everyday folk talk, as evidenced here in a hilarious bit of banter where a Northern family discuss a production of the York Mystery Plays as if God were a real person, not an actor, and the fact many Old Testament stories are skipped is a major disappointment in a play cycle they already feel is a bit too long.

The one-liners keep coming in The York Realist’s first act (when told someone is planning a trip abroad Lesley Nicol’s Mother asks, “What’s wrong with Bridlington?”) but it’s what’s between the lines that really informs the story as Yorkshire farm worker George falls for London-based assistant director John when the latter turns up to persuade the budding actor to return to the cast of the Mystery Plays.

John is all shy smiles while George is no-nonsense and assertive and we glean, not from anything that’s said but from what’s inferred by body language and interaction, that the Yorkshire lad is in the closet with his family but totally comfortable with his sexuality. Ben Batt and Jonathan Bailey give remarkable performances that convey everything we need to know without being explicitly told; when they come home after a walk round the farm we don’t know what they’ve done or said but it’s clear by the light in their eyes that they’re in love.

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Removing his shirt to wash and get changed, Batt is in gasp-inducingly spectacular shape but it’s not a gratuitous disrobing – it’s an illustration of how, when his relationship with John begins to fall apart because he belongs on the farm and John’s life is in London, his stolid physicality is in stark contrast to his emotional frailty. When Batt quietly breaks down it’s devastating.

Bailey beautifully plays down his usual confidence as the adorably timid John, Lesley Nicol brings great warmth to the mother figure around whom the family revolves and director Robert Hastie gets the balance of comedy and pathos just right. Originally produced in 2001, its revival during LGBT History Month rightly gives it its due as one of the most perfectly crafted gay love stories ever put on stage.

Gay Times gives The York Realist – ★★★★★

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Words Michael Reynolds