Theatre: An achingly sad clash of class and culture

Ben Batt and Jonathan Bailey in The York Realist, at the Donmar Theatre

The York Realist, Peter Gill’s beautifully understated, sad drama at Donmar Theatre, is fully confident in its kitchen-sink realism and unafraid to move at a slow pace. Premiered in 2002, it is a perfect companion piece for the working-class plays of DH Lawrence, which Gill famously directed.

A young, middle-class assistant director (Jonathan Bailey), working on the York Mystery Plays, falls in love with a member of the amateur cast, a local farm labourer (Ben Batt). It is the clash of class, culture and geography which keep them apart; neither man is prepared to uproot and relocate. The relationship with the mother (Lesley Nicol) is also perfectly gauged and there is a delightful scene when the whole family comes home, having just been to the Mystery Plays, and are so excited by what they have seen. Robert Hastie’s direction matches Gill’s meticulous detail and the emotional tension is sustained throughout by the excellent, subtle acting.

Michael Luton says his production of Picnic at Hanging Rock at Barbican Theatre is about Englishness versus Australia. In 1900 three girls and a teacher on an expedition disappeared and were never found. So entrenched is the story in Australia’s collective mind that many people believe it actually happened. It didn’t. It is fiction and the fiction has become a potent and unsettling myth. The clever, inventive, highly theatrical production is nothing like the film. The script is a series of intriguing, almost sculptured scenes, punctuated by pitch-black blackouts and a churning soundscape.

A 10-year-old girl has been abducted, abused and killed by a serial killer; but it takes the police 20 years to find him and the girl’s body. Bryony Lavery’s multi-award-winning psychological thriller, Frozen, at Theatre Royal, Haymarket, is about retribution, remorse and redemption, written in a series of monologues and only very occasionally in duologues. Is the unrepentant paedophile (Jason Watkins, truly creepy) evil or sick? Should the grieving mother (Suranne Jones), bent on revenge, forgive him or should he be made to suffer?

Colin Higgins’s Harold and Maude is the story of an 18-year-old boy’s love for a 79-year old woman. At Charing Cross Theatre Thom Southerland attempts something charming by adding music, which is played by the supporting cast, seven actor-musicians. The stage version is never as good as the 1971 cult movie. The screenplay has been watered down and lost its sociopolitical and sexual edge. The surreal setting and the posturing musicians have turned it into one of those 1930s French romantic poetic fantasies Jean Giraudoux used to write. The fake suicides are no longer as funny and the specious philosophising can be squirm-making. Maude is played by Sheila Hancock, who has just celebrated her 85th birthday and is totally at ease with the whimsy. Bill Milner is Harold.

Derek Jarman celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 with a low-budget, outrageous, misogynist punk movie, Jubilee, in which Queen Elizabeth I had a vision of what had happened to her kingdom 400 years later. Young and old punks may enjoy the stage adaptation at Lyric, Hammersmith, but only if they leave their critical faculties at home. The production is messy, often incomprehensible, badly acted, and there is a lot of unnecessary nudity.