“Foxes their dens have they
Birds have their nests so gay
But the son of man
Has not where his head may rest.”
The York Realist is one of Peter Gill’s most well-known plays, and was revived here at Hammersmith Riverside Studios, a theatre co-founded by Gill, as part of his 70th birthday celebrations.
It tells the story of George, a Yorkshire farm worker content with his lot in life, until his participation in a production of the York Mystery Plays throws open a new world of possibilities and choices. He discovers a talent for acting, and a relationship with the assistant director blossoms, leading him to the chance of a career acting on the stage in London. But his ties to his home life are incredibly strong, most notably in the form of his ailing mother, and George finds himself torn between these two worlds, these opposing facets to his life which he finds impossible to reconcile.
The play works best when it is observing the minutiae of daily living in a small rural community, and Stephanie Fayerman as the mother is wonderful, with lines full of the type of Northern humour espoused by Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett. Stephen Hagan as George is really good, with a great line in dark and brooding suggesting the torment raging beneath the gruff farmer’s exterior, but I was less keen on Matthew Burton’s John, although I suspect that was as much to do with his character as anything. The main problem for me though was that their performances together were basically too convincing: I just didn’t believe that they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) work things out, and that leaving them apart felt very much like a purely dramatic decision to allow for maximum angst.
The set looked authentic, the Yorkshire accents (to this Lancastrian ear) sounded spot on, but somehow I was left wanting more from the play itself. The issues of class and alienation that it raised felt quite hard to engage with, the sense of attachment to the rural way of living did not ring true for me, and I had major problems with the central dilemma to the show. A lot of this is probably to do with the fact that I was brought up in a rural village, and left to pursue my dreams and heart in London at the first opportunity. As a drama, this has a long way to go to persuade me that the alternative was a feasible option!