Review of 'The York Realist' by Peter Gill, Strand Theatre, London
'The York Realist' is a touching play which reveals much about class and sexuality in the early 1960s.
It is set in a farm labourer's cottage in Yorkshire and centres on the relationship between its tenant, George, and John, a theatre director. John is from cosmopolitan London, George from working class Yorkshire. But from the opening scene it is clear that it is George who is more confident. He is at ease with his sexuality. That is despite the fact that at the time, gay sex was still illegal. John is more hesitant, even though there were in the 1960s, as today, greater opportunities for people to be openly gay in London than in small towns.
George is appearing in the amateur production which John is directing. They fall for each other. The rest of the play turns on whether they will decide to live together, in Yorkshire or London. It is about whether the two different worlds can come together. George's mother, who lives with him, seems blissfully unaware of his relationship with John, who stays over because 'the last bus has gone'. But how unaware is she as she introduces her son's 'friend' to visitors? She never questions why her son, in his thirties, does not even have a steady girlfriend, let alone a wife.
Doreen, who fancies George, has a clear idea of what is going on. She feels threatened by the relationship between him and John. The other three characters are George's friend Arthur, Barbara, and their son Jack. In one scene, after everyone has been to the opening night, the family and friends are gathered round the kitchen table. The interaction between them betrays what no one says, that John is more than a 'friend' and is effectively part of the family.
All of this rings true. There have been a number of studies over the last decade of working class attitudes to sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s. They reveal a more complex picture than the stereotype of isolated gay men and lesbians facing unremitting hostility. That did happen. But in close knit communities there were forms of acceptance of people who had 'special friends' or who for some reason 'felt that they weren't cut out for marriage'. There was also sexual experimentation. At one point George tells a shocked John that as a teenager he slept with Arthur. They had gone out for a drink looking for girls, hadn't found any, and made do with each other instead.
So it is not sexual repression which threatens to keep them apart as they are confronted with the death of George's mother and questions about their future. It is how class shapes their expectations. Moving to London for George means facing a threat--not over his sexuality, which would be tolerated in middle class theatre circles, but over his class.
For John to move to Yorkshire would mean turning his back on the developing radical movement in theatre which erupted a few years later. This is a real dilemma. Who will turn out to be the 'realist' of the play's title? Get along to this play, which will be touring later in the year, and find out for yourself.