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!)

Moving by Jenny Eclair

A few months ago I was listening to Graham Norton’s Saturday morning radio show and his guest was Jenny Eclair who was talking about her new novel: Moving.

 

The interview was a bit of hard work for a casual listener doing his housework as Jenny didn’t let her natural, bubbly personality be restrained by the medium of radio. She was loud, quick, jumping from topic to topic – and generally very funny.

When talking about the book – about an older woman going from room to room in her house as she prepares to sell it, and reminiscing about the history of each room – she talked about how she had become fascinated by buildings and the history they contained.

The novel, if I’m honest, sounded to me like there wouldn’t be much plot, and I assumed that it would be more of a series of comedic essays and tales, anecdotes and stories weaved into one through the shared history of one house. So I didn’t rush out to get a copy.

When one passed by my desk, however, my curiosity was piqued enough to slip it in my bag and take it home for a read.

Celebrity novelists as far as I’m concerned face one danger when writing their books. Namely placing themselves as the main character in their story, or by writing in the stand-up voice which is the reason I struggled with Dawn French’s books. It’s difficult to engage with a fictional character that is obviously based on a real person.

The only way it would be possible is if it’s so true to life you could believe that the events being described had actually happened to that person. So, when Dawn French’s voice came out of a sixteen year old girl on page one of her novel, I couldn’t invest in what was happening and I soon gave up.

Eclair deftly manages to avoid this trap, by simply writing about a character that is so obviously not based on herself. Of course, when Edwina pulls herself out of the bath on page one and looks at the tiny silver-haired woman in the mirror, the reader is thinking of Jenny Eclair, the name they’ve just seen displayed larger than the title on the front cover.

But the writing is of such a quality and the characterisation is so spot on that the fact that Jenny Eclair wrote this book is quickly forgotten.

Thoughts instead, turn to how long the premise can last. Edwina, despite her advancing age, rattles through the rooms of the relatively large house, that the reader is left wondering just how many rooms there will turn out to be – or indeed if the slightly senile Edwina will simply just do two or three tours of the building.

The book, though, is actually split into three sections, Edwina’s forgetful meandering, Fern’s 1980’s education and Lucas’ present day return to the city, Moving is in itself is like construction of a house.

Edwina’s tour of her crumbling town house is simply the foundation for the bricks and mortar of Fern’s experiences in Manchester and Lucas’s tales of the past are simply the furnishings of the house that is Charlie.

Charlie is the character around whom the story revolves, despite the fact that he is absent for much of it. Our three main characters define him with their tales of his life.

Mother.

Lover.

Brother.

It is only through all of them that we get a complete understanding of who Charlie was, what his story was.

The end of the book returns to Edwina to provide a coda to the story, to put a lock on the front door and leave Charlie’s story told, and then in the final few pages we learn that while it may seem over, it was simply the foundation for another story.

I enjoyed Moving much more than I thought I would, because it was well written, revealed enough to keep you satisfied, but not too much that you didn’t keep going and it made me think.

In short, Moving was moving.

(Oh, come on, you didn’t think I could resist that, did you?)

Dawn French – 30 Million Minutes

It’s been approximately a thousand minutes since I sat down in my chair in the Hexagon theatre in Reading and photo bombed the selfie of the woman in front of me.

I was there to watch Dawn French perform her one woman show ’30 Million Minutes’ – the premise of which is that that is roughly the amount of minutes that French has been alive.

It is an autobiographical show, one in which Dawn tries to look back on her life and make sense of it. She says at the very beginning that she feels like she’s in a transition phase between one part of her life to another, and that this show is about stopping, taking a pause and trying to make sense of everything.

To that effect, it’s important to note that is not stand-up. It’s not gag after gag. It’s Dawn French telling the audience about all the things that have made her who she is.

She talks about her childhood, her mum, her dad, her brother and her grandparents. She tells a few anecdotes – including one about the Queen Mother – none of which will be new news to anyone who has read her 2007 autobiography Dear Fatty, but it’s great to hear them told by her, and makes it that little bit better.

French talks candidly about her father’s depression and subsequent suicide, her battles – not with weight loss – but with those weight loss headlines that dogged her for a while some years ago and her fierce protectiveness of her adoptive daughter Billie. She mentions her divorce from Lenny Henry after thirty years and some of the racism that they encountered as a mixed race couple, some of which is quite shocking.

But it’s still Dawn French telling these stories, she’s a funny woman. Her style of delivery is naturally funny, and while there are still tears rolling down your face after hearing about her father, you’re almost on the floor with laughter as she starts telling you about her mother’s growler.

It’s a brilliant show, and you can’t help but feel you’ve gotten to know Dawn a little bit better than you might have done before. The show’s warmth and candid nature makes you feel like you’ve spent the evening with a friend – and it spilt over for us.

We ended the evening sat in a bar with the two women – two strangers – who’s selfie we photo bombed earlier in the evening, and that is in no small part due to the way that Dawn made us feel. Friendly, open, and a little bit silly.

30 Million Minutes is on tour now with dates currently running until December – I highly recommend getting to see if you can.