Sunday 11 March 2018

The York Realist at the Donmar, or, A Masterclass in Theatre

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 5th March 2018.

The best theatre for me is to be found in shows which move me emotionally. I've often felt that this puts me in a minority in a cultural world where higher priority is given to shows with some kind of message (often delivered in the form of a lecture) or gimmicky productions which though technically clever are otherwise unsatisfying. So it's always a pleasure to see a piece of work as beautifully crafted as this, which gripped me with concern for these characters to the point of several times in the second half having to choke back tears.

The play is set in the downstairs room of an old cottage high in the Yorkshire Dales, the home of George and his ailing mother. Into this world arrives John, a southern aspiring actor and current assistant director of a production of the York Mystery Plays, wondering why George has stopped coming to rehearsals. And for a time into this cottage comes new love.

Alongside the love story, the play also explores George's relationships with his family, and with a family friend Dureen. The play starts off ambiguous about what they know and think about George's sexuality, until the last scenes when we feel the poignancy of things unspoken. There's a fine debut performance from Brian Fletcher as George's eldest nephew Jack – a lost adolescent on the cusp of the real world. It's particularly notable because it hinges so much on silence and physical attitude – tough things that actors of many more years often struggle to bring off.

The whole ensemble is very strong, but the highest credit has to be given to Ben Batt's George. His face through the second scene of Act 2 as he's persistently bothered by people when you feel all he really wants is to be left alone is painful and powerful to watch.

Robert Hastie's direction, supported by Peter McKintosh's set and Paul Pyant's lighting combine superbly to conjure the little world of the house in the Donmar space, while making one believe in the Dales beyond. Hastie makes movement, stillness, looks speak eloquently. In addition to things already mentioned I'd also single out the interactions between George and Jack – the telling brief moments of comfortable domesticity.

The evening, as other commentators on social media have noted, left me wanting to know what happens next. This is an outstanding, powerfully moving piece of theatre. It travels (briefly) to Sheffield at the end of March, but would richly deserve longer life. In the meantime queue for returns. The best play of 2018 so far.

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