There’s a lyric in the musical Guys and Dolls in which Sky Masterson describes to Salvation Army Sarah how luck works. It’s “chance and chemistry,” he says. “Chemistry?” she asks. “Yeah, chemistry,” he replies.
Well, chemistry also happens to be one of the defining ingredients in Robert Hastie’s flawlessly directed, stunningly acted revival of Peter Gill’s The York Realist. It’s the chemistry between the two young men who fall in love that gives this superb play its emotional centre of gravity. Without that chemistry its impact would be diminished.
The time is the early 60s. We’re in a tied cottage not too far from York. It is shared by an elderly but robust widow (Lesley Nicol) and her son George (Ben Batt), a down-to-earth farm labourer who, uncharacteristically, has agreed to appear as a centurion in a local community production of the York Mystery plays. Lacking confidence, however, he withdraws from the production, prompting the play’s young assistant director John (Jonathan Bailey) to call on him at home hoping to persuade him to return to rehearsals.
It is immediately evident the two men are attracted to each other, with George untruthfully telling John he has missed the last bus back to York so that they can spend the night together. The set-up couldn’t be simpler, but it's merely the springboard for a multi-layered character study of two very different men, a real case of opposites attracting.
There are no stereotypical signs of George’s gayness. An introspective, physically strapping working-class man of few words, he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve for the world to pick at. He is comfortable with his sexuality, and has no personal ambition to be anything he isn’t.
John, on the other hand, is less at ease with the situation. A middle-class Londoner conspicuously charmed by George's old-fashioned farmhouse and its ancient accouterments – especially the kitchen range that dominates the front room – he takes the massive cultural divide between their lifestyles in stride. The prospect of romance makes his eyes grow brightly.
Though the narrative is pretty straight forward, the relationship unfurls in flashback. We’re never given an exact chronology, but the play actually begins several months after George and John spent their first night together. John has returned to York, this time as a director of the Mystery plays, and has travelled to the farm to see George, with whom he hasn’t made contact for quite a while. In the interim, George’s mother has died, and now, with no family obligations to keep him on the farm, John unsuccessfully tries to persuade him to return to London and find work as an actor.
Though George is still in love with John, in the affecting final scene he stoically rejects his offer, pointing out that Yorkshire is where he lives, Besides, not only has he left it too late, but "I couldn't learn to speak differently now. I couldn’t be in Shakespeare," he says. "No thanks. Just be some Northerner as a job." Batt's final moments are as wrenching as anything I've seen in a theatre for some time, and they break your heart.
But none of this would work without the aforementioned chemistry between the two men. This is empathetic acting on the highest level, with both Bailey and Batt giving career-defining performances. As well as the excellent Nicol, who, without ever alluding to it, understands the nature of her son's relationship with John. There's terrific ensemble work from Lucy Black as John' sister, Matthew Wilson as his brother-in-law, Brian Fletcher as his nephew and Katie West, the girl next door who once cherished dreams of becoming George's wife but grows to accept that he's "not the marrying kind."
Hastie's sensitive, flawless direction is alert to the play's D.H. Lawrence and Chekhovian influences and doesn't miss a trick when it comes to character revelation through the merest gesture or inflexion. The scene in which George's family returns to the farmhouse for their ubiquitous cup of tea after seeing the Mystery plays and discuss the performances (“Jesus was good,” “God had a good voice...”) is orchestrated for maximum laughs.
Though the subject of men from different classes or backgrounds falling in love isn't exactly trailblazing (the recent British film God's Own Country covered similar territory, and going much further back, so did E.M. Forster's novel Maurice), The York Realist gives the subject a resonance it has never had before, firmly establishing Gill’s masterpiece as a modern classic.