Jonathan Bailey is enjoying his time in Sheffield. I meet him in the Crucible Theatre’s vivid green staff room, halfway through his latest production’s two week run. “This is a brilliant city that seems really connected to the arts,” he says. “The audiences here are hungry for great theatre.”
Instantly recognisable for his roles in BBC mockumentary W1A; ITV’s landmark drama Broadchurch; and a whole host of comedy including Campus, Crashing and Chewing Gum, Bailey is starring in a new production of Peter Gill’s play The York Realist, which is showing at the Crucible until Saturday following a successful run in London.
Set in 1960s rural Yorkshire, the play tells the story of George (Ben Batt), a farm labourer involved in a production of the York Mystery Plays. When he withdraws from the project, shy assistant director John (Bailey) makes the journey from London to persuade him to reconsider. As they fall in love, the pair’s relationship is tested by the divisions of culture and class.
It reminds YOU OF THE GRUELLING LONELINESS THAT WOULD’VE COME WITH BEING GAY aT THAT TIME.
For Bailey, the play presented an irresistible opportunity to immerse himself in the kind of theatre he loves. “It’s rare that a piece of theatre settles on brilliant characters and a simple story. I think cultural entertainment can go so far one way that it becomes populist entertainment. This play goes back to an old-fashioned way of telling stories.”
The York Realist is certainly a story worth telling. Centring on a gay relationship in a country on the cusp of decriminalization, it paints a profound picture of human experience which, Bailey learned, was all too real. “Like my character, Peter Gill was a young assistant director who worked on the York Mystery Plays in the ‘60s, so the play is sort of semi-autobiographical (although he denies that). A lot of his peers who were gay and worked in the Royal Court are still around to have amazing chats with.”
One such peer was Anthony Page, now a celebrated theatre and film director. “He remembered being gay in London as feeling ‘like double leprosy’. When you hear something like that, it reminds you of the gruelling loneliness that would’ve come with being gay at that time. It adds another layer of understanding and for me, it humanizes the story. The ‘60s really wasn’t that long ago.”
However, Bailey is quick to point out that the play doesn’t exclusively revolve around the sexuality of its main characters: “It’s about a relationship that could be homosexual or heterosexual, it just can’t happen because of life experiences and cultural backdrops that are too different. There are very real reasons why they can’t be together.”
I’m curious to know whether Bailey feels this production, revived from its first performance in 2001, resonates with cultural divides seemingly sweeping post-Brexit Britain. “It’s certainly not a play about Brexit, but I do think that cultural differences are highlighted today in a way they haven’t been for the last 40 years.
“What the referendum proved is that there’s such a crater of difference between people’s political experiences of the UK. I remember being on the bus the day Brexit was announced and it was the first time that people were talking to each other properly and communicating.
“These characters are desperately trying to communicate with each other and say the things they feel they need to say.”
A passionate advocate of widening access to the arts, Bailey feels systematic inequality continues to restrict opportunities for young theatrical talent. Citing his own family’s working-class background, he explains: “There’s a conversation that’s very loud at the moment, and that’s about privilege in the arts.
cULTURAL DIFFERENCES ARE HIGHLIGHTED TODAY IN A WAY THEY HAVEN’T BEEN FOR THE LAST 40 YEARS.
“It’s about making sure there’s enough of an outreach so that people with homegrown talent can feel confident that they’ll be accepted. It’s not enough to see middle-class, privileged kids getting to be the backing singers in Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat; we need to make sure there are real opportunities in schools.
“That’s kind of where John [Bailey’s character] is coming from too. The decision I made about John is that his main drive in coming up to York is not just that he fancies George: George is really talented.”
Alongside his stellar TV career, Bailey has had his fair share of theatrical success, including a recent run as Edgar in King Lear opposite Ian McKellen, a milestone he calls “a complete out-of-body experience. I would watch him and think ‘This is extraordinary. This is ludicrous.’
“You always feel slightly fraudulent in theatre because success is so subjective – you can never say with complete confidence that you smashed a part. So, it’s moments when you’re involved in brilliant theatre and surrounded by brilliantly talented people which feel pivotal in a career that isn’t very secure.”
I’d like to hear Bailey’s perspective on the differences between TV and theatre acting, as someone with considerable experience of both forms. He looks pensive for a moment. “With theatre, you get five weeks to really explore the material. You hole yourself away with strangers, telling each other stories and investigating the themes around the play. You get to practise your lines and perform them under pressure.
“In TV you have to do all of that on your own in the bathroom mirror. That’s the difference. You can do a series like W1A and go through the whole thing not even meeting one of the other cast members because of how your schedules work out. Theatre is more of a co-operative.”
iN TV YOU HAVE TO PREPARE ON YOUR OWN IN THE BATHROOM MIRROR.
Before I leave, I feel bound to seek Bailey’s advice for a student reader who might want to follow in his footsteps. He answers instantly: “Do everything you possibly can while you’re at university. If you haven’t tried a musical yet, get involved in one now. Do everything you’d be scared to do in a professional environment; make mistakes and make friends.
“So many people I know met at university and went on to make incredible theatre together, so find people who are on your wavelength and stick with them. Don’t ever imagine that you need to be like someone else in order to succeed: your own identity is what people will remember. There’s no yellow brick road.”
The York Realist is at the Crucible Theatre until Saturday 7 April. Book your tickets here.