Beautiful Thing

Jonathan Harvey’s iconic play gets a 20th anniversary reboot

It’s fair to say there are plenty of maudlin, pessimistic gay themed dramas and lots more that are so shrill and outré any message they might have is lost. Occasionally one surfaces with a bit more class and Beautiful Thing is definitely in that category. Written by Jonathan Harvey, the play originally opened twenty years ago. This anniversary version debuted at London’s Arts Theatre in April before touring selectively around the UK. Directed by Nikolai Foster and starring the wonderful Suranne Jones, could this play really stand up for itself in a different world. Or is it a different world?

Utilising a minimal set to depict either a balcony or a bedroom, this production of Beautiful Thing is noticeable for two particular aspects. The first is the silences which are present often, especially earlier on. It can be slightly disconcerting almost as if someone’s forgotten their line but once you get acclimatised it makes perfect sense. The other thing is how the dialogue becomes funnier towards the end. Normally you’d expect some tragedy but the final 15 minutes is bracingly barbed with terrific lines so you end with a smile rather than frown.

The story is slight; in the early 1990s, teenager Jamie has grown up on a Thamesmead housing estate with single mother Sandra who is now seeing the far posher but randomly philosophical Tony. Next door the younger Ste endures regular beatings and verbal abuse courtesy of his father and older brother for whom he cooks and launders. The other neighbour is the delusional Leah who escapes the humdrum by imagining she is Mama Cass, the legendary singer whose presence informs the classic songs that sometimes waft over the action which takes place during a hot summer.

The play is as much about the mother/ son dynamic as it is about the two boys. Suranne Jones kicks it out of the park with a convincing performance as Sandra. Harvey writes playfully combative dialogue between her and Jamie that can any second cut away into real aggravation. While the scene where Jamie tells her the truth is a showcase for the younger actor, it is Jones’ ability to show both shock and nurturing that you can see even from half way back in the theatre. Jake Davies and Danny-Boy Hatchard are both excellent too as respectively Jamie and Ste. The roles were rehearsed intensively to create a genuine friendship between the two and this shows because they clearly trust each other.

Jamie is the showier role, the one who gets to be clever and initiate developments and Davies combines cheeky intelligence and vulnerability to put this across. Ste seems a more difficult role as he reacts rather than initiates so much and Hatchard, in his professional stage debut convinces as a younger, less knowing person. As Tony Oliver Farnsworth gets the laughs in the early stretch with his new age ramblings while Zaraah Abrahams makes a great Leah all confidence and singing, but underneath less sure of herself than any of the others. 

"Do ever feel like there's several hundred people watching eveything you do?"

Amazingly two people apparently walked out one night in Liverpool because of the kiss which is sort of like storming out of a football ground because someone has the temerity to score a goal! It does demonstrate though that this is not a play that dwells on the physical side of things; despite the setting it is cerebral in nature. Harvey emphasises the intelligence inherent in everyone – you feel for example that Jamie’s disinterest in football is more to do with his intelligence than his sexualilty. Some may find this too sugary but the ending is left in the air. Will Sandra move herself and Jamie somewhere else if she accepts a new job? There is no doubt that if Jamie and Ste’s relationship becomes common knowledge on the estate they will have a few problems. This version makes that prospect less implicit than the 1996 film which concludes with a scene that means everyone knows.

Admittedly Beautiful Thing could be seen as the default gay themed play for people who wouldn’t normally see a gay themed play but doesn’t that just make it closer to more people’s experiences than some of the more melodramatic alternatives? Things have changed in twenty years but the absence of modern technology aside, the play still rings true and endures as a demonstration that, really, there isn’t that much difference when it comes to the awkward anxious scenario of falling in love for the first time.

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