Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Much to the excitement of the playwright if his Twitter feed is to be believed, Jonathan Harvey's 1993 play Beautiful Thing that initiated his sudden rise to major prominence as a theatre writer is being given its first major revival for five years by Sarah Frankcom at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre.
Harvey's coming of age / coming out story is set in a south London housing estate in the early 1990s where Sandra is a single parent to loner teenager Jamie, Ste is Jamie's classmate who is popular at school and good at sports but is abused in his all-male home by his father and brothers and Leah is a typical snappy, sour-faced teenage girl except that she is obsessed with the music of Mama Cass.
Sandra abuses Leah for her close friendship with her son at the start, but when she puts up Ste for some nights to help him to avoid the beatings at home, it turns out that her apologies to him for him having to share a bed with Jamie are not entirely necessary.
This is a tender story of blossoming love in difficult surroundings, perhaps a little idealistic in some ways but told with a great deal of heart and humour. There are parts of the play that feel a little disjointed and others where the writer has crowbarred a few too many jokes in for the scene to remain believable, but there are a great many laugh-out-loud moments that support, rather than distract from, a lovely story well-told.
Director Sarah Frankcom has assembled a cast that really brings the best out of these characters, led by a beautifully-understated performance by new LAMDA graduate Matthew Tennyson as Jamie who totally convinces as a troubled 15-year-old loner. He has very good support from Tommy Vine as sporty but sensitive Ste and Claire-Louise Cordwell as his strong, mouthy mother Sandra, and there are well-measured performances too from Tara Hodge as Leah—who seems to have a different costume for every appearance on stage— and Alex Price as Tony, the loveably-pathetic artist boyfriend of Sandra who doesn't do any art or anything else.
Liz Ascroft's design recreates authentically the cracked flags and rusted railings of the common areas of a poorly-maintained council estate but doesn't really overcome the problems of not having doors into the flats to knock on; stamping on doors painted on the floor doesn't really work, and having Leah's muffled Mama Cass music vibrating from under these doors is an interesting idea but it drowns out some of the dialogue.
This is an excellent revival, though, of a play that was worth reviving, as, although it came from the midst of a wave of new plays, largely from the Royal Court, about sex, sexuality and violence in the 1980s and 1990s, Harvey's writing has a lot more heart and humour and less pretension than many of them. Plus it ends on a much more hopeful note than most of its dark contemporaries, emphasised in this production by a rousing chorus of "Dream A Little Dream Of Me" from the Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus that is guaranteed to send you out with a smile your face if you didn't have one already.
"Beautiful Thing" runs to 3 December 2011
Reviewer: David Chadderton