The Donmar’s new show, The York Realist, dates from 2001. The programme notes tell us that the playwright, Peter Gill, ‘is one of the most important and influential writers and directors of the past 30 years’. Who wrote that? Not Peter Gill, I hope. The play, directed by Robert Hastie, follows a gay affair between a strapping Yorkshire cowherd and a sensitive London artiste. They meet while rehearsing an am-dram production of a mystery play set in a ruined abbey. Gay men will enjoy this charmingly acted production but it’s apt to bore the general audience because the characters are trite, the gay theme feels antiquated and the storyline is as light as a Post-It note.
It doesn’t help that Peter Gill writes like a newcomer at a creative writing weekend. He ignores Rule One of drama: a character without a motive is not a character. Gill sets his scene in a kitchen and he inserts five characters — Barbara, Jack, Doreen, Arthur and Mother — but gives none of them a dramatic purpose other than to be nice. Nothing’s at stake, no one has a mission, no one stands to gain or lose anything apart from a second cup of tea or a bit more cake. So the action burbles along with a lot of jolly chitchat about shirts, pies, kettles, biscuits, fences, milk, calves, and so on. In the background, the cowherd is eyeing up the artiste but nothing happens until the other characters have shoved off. Then they have sex.
Act Two is a little better. The characters have returned from the mystery play which daft young Jack mistook for a whodunnit. That’s not a bad gag. ‘Jesus was good,’ says Doreen. That’s funny as well because it has two meanings: ‘the actor playing Jesus was effective’ and ‘the son of God was virtuous’.