The York Realist by Peter Gill

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After posting last week’s review of The Eyre Affair, WordPress kindly pinged me a notification that I had just published my 200th blog post.

 

I’ve had a quick peek back and that breaks down as:

 

89 Books Reviews

82 Random Ramblings

24 Chapters of Memories of a Murder

2 Short Stories

1 Poem

And 1 Review of a stage show (Dawn French’s one-woman show, for those interested)

 

All of which presents me the perfect opportunity to go little off-piste and talk about something a bit different (AKA I’m reading a big book and struggling with it so there is no book review this week, but I’m distracting you with something new and shiny):

 

A review of a play!

 

 

My twitter chum @adejohnleader very kindly (go on, give him a follow) gave me tickets to see The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse.

 

First off – let’s start with the Donmar. One of the reasons I lept at Ade’s offer was because I’d always wanted to go to the Donmar, and never previously had a chance.

 

The seats are arranged in a horseshoe shape around the stage. We we were sitting on one side of the ‘circle’ (more of a U) and that meant we saw he whole production from the side of the stage, looking down on it.

 

It was a unique experience, one that actually helped immerse you into what was going on. It made me feel less like an audience member and more of a voyeur. Bizarrely, it helped make the whole thing seem more real.

 

There were moments when George – the main character – would look over at our side of the stage while talking to someone in the other direction. His words were saying one thing, but his facial expressions another.

 

I was very aware that my friend who I’d spotted on the other side of the theatre couldn’t see what I could see, and may well have been interpreting things differently. I wondered what things he was seeing that were shaping the play for him. Were we both watching he same play, but having very different interpretations, simply because of our physical perspective?

 

Highly likely, we know that art of any kind is made in the emotional perspective of the viewer, but I’d never really considered physical perspective in other shows I’d been to.

 

Onto the play itself.

 

The York Realist is set in 1960’s Yorkshire and all takes place in the front room of George’s house. He’s a farm labourer, living with his mother, being set up with one of the local girls Doreen – but there is a secret, one bubbling under, one that everyone seems to know, but never mentions.

 

That secret is John and a love affair they share.

 

I’ll be honest John is the other reason I jumped at the chance to see this play. Or at least Jonathan Bailey was. I’ve had a bit of a crush on him for years, ever since I first saw him in dodgy Neil Morrissey BBC1 Sitcom Me and Mrs Jones. Said crush was only heightened after 2016’s glorious Crashing (Can we have another series, please?).

 

But, while he was good, the whole cast were, particularly ‘Barbara’ actress Lucy Black it was Ben Batt as George that captivated my attention the whole way through. He had a presence right from the moment he stepped onto the stage.

 

He was the enigmatic George, drawing us all in and making us understand his character with just looks and eye rolls. The writing – the play was written by Peter Gill – obviously helped, natural as it was, but he inhabited the role so much that the character still lingers clearly in my mind several days later.

 

The play explores the difference in cultures between the two men, John, the out and proud gay man, seemingly less confident in making a move, while, in one of the play’s funniest scenes, George grabs a pot of Vaseline from the kitchen and drags his partner upstairs.

 

Events conspire against them but the emotional crux of the play comes when George must make a decision. Stay in Yorkshire or move to London with John. Similarly, John is confronted with the possibility of just staying in Yorkshire with the man he loves, but in a community where they won’t be accepted.

 

The pull of home, our friends and family, what’s comfortable vs the new and exciting, vs a love that could go wrong seems to be the main conflict. Reader, myself and a random woman I was sitting next to were in tears.

 

But, as well as emotional, it was funny. Funny in a way that TV can’t be. Looks from one character to another, a subtle eye roll which on the screen wouldn’t translate that well, were suddenly hilarious in person.

 

The theatre reminds me of real life. It is funny, and it is emotional, and sometimes even the through the most mundane of activities – such as George eating his dinner – some of the most interesting parts of life happens.  It’s a trick that television hasn’t been able to achieve for some time. Maybe it used to, particularly in the early days of the soap operas, but our attention spans are too short now.

 

We have to have drama. Or comedy. We very rarely seem to get both, and when we do the drama has to be bigger and better, the comedy has to be more raucous or surreal. On TV a gag about a pot of Vaseline would come across as crude and offensive, on the stage it’s a moment of real life.

 

For me, 2018 is going to be the year of plays. I’m aiming to see one every month. I saw Lady Windermere’s Fan in January, plus a revisit of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in early Feb. I’m chalking The York Realist up as my March visit come early. It’s not the first play I’ve ever seen in the West End, but I have a feeling it will be the one that truly started my love for non-musical productions.

 

The York Realist is on at the Donmar until the 24th March with a special benefit performance on the 21st before transferring to the Sheffield Crucible until 7th April

 

(PS – I’ve nicked the image from the Donmar’s website – couldn’t find anyone to credit, but would gladly amend this blog were someone to let me know!)

The Casual Vacancy

JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy begins it’s BBC1 adaptation tonight, so a few of you may be wondering whether or not the book is any good. I first read and reviewed The Casual Vacancy back when it was published in 2012.

Below is my review from three years ago…

So my last blog post was about how Harry Potter and JK Rowling has appeared throughout my personal and professional life. The reason for that was so that I could write this blog about her newest book – The Casual Vacancy – purely on the merits of the book itself.

However, now, as I sit down to write this blog, I wonder if that it is possible – and if it is, should I?

With any established brand – and that is what she is – whether it’s a TV series, a musician or a maker of champagne, there is the expectation on the next product to be as good as the previous one, if not better. Executed badly, they risk devaluing a franchise (various film series spring to mind here), but if it’s pulled off, they can reap huge rewards.

Some might say it’s unfair to judge The Casual Vacancy in comparison to the Harry Potter series, but the truth is a lot of people will buy The Casual Vacancy whether they like the sound of the plot or not, because they are fans of Rowling. Her writing, her characterisation, her plotting and her pacing are hallmarks of her writing, and so must be assessed in terms of both their standalone appearance in this novel, and in comparison to her previous publications.

It would, however, be unfair to compare the impact. Potter was a cultural phenomenon, which The Casual Vacancy will never be, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t as good as Potter – or indeed, better.

So, now that I’ve set out my stall, it’s time to actually find out if it was actually any good…

I liked it.

The plot is subtle. It concerns a village – Pagford – on the edge of a larger town, Yarvil – and The Fields – an estate between the two. The parish council of Pagford is split into two factions, those who wish The Fields to be governed by Yarvil – led by the pompous, big fish in a small pond, Howard – and those who wish for it to be governed by Pagford.

The second faction was, up until about page 5, led by Barry Fairbrother, but when he dies, he leaves a spare seat on the council, the Casual Vacancy referred to in the title.

The next 500 pages or so are about the three potential replacements, their families and friends and Krystal Weedon a resident of The Fields and her family.

It doesn’t exactly sound very exciting. It’s certainly no “Boy Wizard and friends defeat Dark Lord by destroying seven split pieces of his soul”.

But the plot isn’t really the point. It’s about the characters and their relationships with each other. It sort of attempts social commentary, but I don’t think it really succeeds – the concept of a parish council in a small village is too far removed from the realities of most modern lives.

What it does succeed in though, is the development of a fascinating group of characters. The characters of The Casual Vacancy – specifically Krystal Weedon, Andrew Price and Fats Wall – compare tremendously well to their Potter counterparts.

These characters seem real and of this world. Harry Potter was never supposed to be of this world, but looking back on him and Hermione and Ron now, they seem a bit two dimensional.

Casual Vacancy is told from a number of different viewpoints, something which helps build the scope of the novel, but which also helps to define the characters and their relationships with each other.

All of the characters are horrible. I don’t think I can look back on them and truly say I liked any of them – but I certainly felt sympathy for them, and I definitely got to know them in a way that, over seven books, I didn’t know Harry Potter (who was always a bit coy over defining his feelings).

Maybe that’s the point Rowling is trying to make – we’re all as horrible as each other, and even those people that we like, our friends, our family, our lovers, if we were inside their head and knew everything they were thinking, would we still like them as much? Probably not.

Like them or not, you get to know the characters so well, that you CARE about the results of the election. It feels tense as you build closer and closer to it until you get there, when suddenly it doesn’t matter any more. From the day of the election, the story spirals out of control of the hands of our characters. A chain of events begins that will likely change the dynamics of the village for a long time, and it is, a little bit heartbreaking.

Not bad for a plot-light book about a local election.

Negative bits:

The Weedon family’s dialogue where Rowling falls into the trap of trying to write an accent. It goes over the top a bit, and reminds me of her writing of Hagrid. Also as a resident (sort-of) of the West Country where Pagford is supposedly located, it reads more as Scouse than Farmer…

Rowling’s over-use of brackets to for explanation of back story (sometimes lasting over a page) is distracting.

Howard and Shirley Mollison while good characters, were also good characters when they appeared in the Harry Potter series. They are Petunia and Vernon Dursley, albeit a few years older. They are Mr and Mrs Muggleton of Muggleville.

That’s about it for negatives.

The book certainly isn’t for everyone. It’s not a page-turner, more of a slow-build, but if you have the time to invest in it, and you have a taste for books from the more literary end of the spectrum then I would certainly recommend giving it a go. Even if you didn’t like Harry Potter. Perhaps, especially if you didn’t like Harry Potter. It’s completely different.

I’m giving The Casual Vacancy a 7.5 out of 10. It is by no means perfect, and it’s not going to change anybody’s life, but it is enjoyable, and it is well written.