Dir: Nikolai Foster
120 min • Arts Theatre • From April 13, 2013
Marking the 20th anniversary of the tender and ground-breaking play’s Bush Theatre inaugural run, a new production of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing is at the Arts Theatre in London from April 13th until May 25th, from when it will embark on a UK tour in Liverpool, Leeds and Brighton.
Bursting onto the stage with the powerhouse ‘It’s Getting Better’ by Mama Cass, we are transported to the early ’90s and Thamesmead in South East London, the small set lending to the confined living conditions on the estate.
We learn of the story of troubled and sensitive teenager Jamie who holds a torch for his neighbour Ste, who wrestles with the domineering demons of his abusive brother and father. Add to the mix the disaffected Leah, a neighbour with a bizarre Mama Cass fixation and Sandra, Jamie’s tempestuous and brash mother, and her well-meaning, yet squibbish boyfriend Tony and we are drawn into this gritty, tender, funny and heart-breaking coming of age story between two young men.
Jamie’s inner torment is effortlessly palpable in a brilliant turn from Jake Davis. Danny-Boy Hatchard is the vulnerable, yet hardened Ste, and watching his cares dissipate as the play progresses is truly wonderful. Suranne Jones delivers a stellar performance as the brassy, over-protective Sandra, dismayed by the realisation that her son is gay. The coming out scene is truly upsetting, yet not overplayed with saccharine sentiment and packs a genuine emotional punch. In an amusingly overcooked, but thoroughly convincing performance, Zaraah Abrahams is stunning as the foul-mouthed, tearaway Leah.
Harvey’s writing and canny ability to inject humour into gritty, emotional set pieces is still wonderfully affecting 20 years on. Who thought a shade of tissues could be so hilariously distracting? The play is set (and was written) in a time when Section 28 was in place and gay characters were usually limited to marginalised rent boys. It’s truly brilliant of Harvey to have created three-dimensional and more tangible gay characters underpinning a touching, sincere and relatable story.
The troubles Ste faces, however, are perhaps too subtly handled, as the film production of the play was given added grittiness and disdain for Ste’s reprehensible drug-dealing brother and alcoholic father. Nonetheless, the cast are truly wonderful and thoroughly engaging and the confined set adds to the realism of the tensions bubbling over.
With music from the formidable Mama Cass punctuating pivotal points in this timeless play, this production of Beautiful Thing will delight stalwarts and entice many newcomers to witness this poignant story unfold. Here’s to the next twenty years. Simply beautiful.