Beautiful Thing

Jonathan Harvey
Tom O'Connell for QNQ
Arts Theatre

Jake Davies as Jamie and Danny-Boy Hatchard as Ste Credit: Mike Lidbetter
Suranne Jones as Sandra and Jake Davies as Jamie Credit: Mike Lidbetter
Oliver Farnworth as Tony and Suranne Jones as Sandra Credit: Mike Lidbetter

A product of its own name, Beautiful Thing is well-empowered enough to stand on its own two feet screaming for attention, and demanding that people listen; and the most fascinating thing about it, is the impossible to ignore measurement of how much has changed since this play premiered in 1993.

Being a young critic, I was two years old when this play received its first showing at the Bush Theatre but even I can admire that this is a celebration of this well-admired play’s 20th birthday as well as homosexuality in a 2013 London, and the vast amount of gay couples in the audience is testament to that.

Whilst this 20th anniversary production finds a comfortable home in the Arts Theatre kicking off a UK tour, we find ourselves analysing the action on a walkway connecting three low-rise flats in southeast London. It’s a council estate where “you’re alright” is the biggest compliment someone can pay, and a fiver is gift of the month.

With the Mama Cass wannabe and school evictee Leah (Zaraah Abrahams), mother Sandra (Suranne Jones—a delight to watch), son Jamie (Jake Davies) and neighbour Ste (Danny-Boy Hatchard) just getting by daily on a school and pub work timetable, there’s some wind-up coming in the form of Tony (Oliver Farnworth), Sandra’s part-time lover and artist.

Whilst we celebrate how times have changed in the recent decades where this play has built up its fan base, it is far from outdated and irrelevant. Seeing two young teen males accept themselves for themselves and fall in love on a London stage today still hits home; it’s still resoundingly important and cathartic. This whole play is about finding yourself on the outside: not being invited to come for a kickabout in the park, or finding yourself as gay in an unwelcoming council estate. This is a biting production that sends the messages home with wit, charm and brilliance.

The intelligent staging during the pinnacle ‘coming out’ scene serving as Jamie’s bedroom as well as an exterior view of the flat, whilst Sandra smokes out her worries with a tasty fag, is admirable; the whole set-up begs belief as to how each can feel like such an outsider in such a claustrophobic living environment, but it is executed effortlessly. Jonathan Harvey’s writing is second to none: it comes with a fair view of each character's emotion making it impossible for us to not fall in love with the play as a whole.

This impeccable cast knows that they’re packing non-stop punches with every line delivery, but the beauty comes in equal measure, authentication of Nikolai Foster’s fantastic direction. As Foster states, too, it’s boundlessly refreshing to see a production of this kind without any kind of demise; sit back from the edge of your seat because your heart isn’t going to be shattered, you’re just going to gasp with awe.

For all of its successes on such a difficult task of moving quite a large audience, I shamelessly wanted to become a resident of this society. A more intimate venue is desired to ensure that there’s at least one person in the room who doesn’t feel excluded from the action: the audience member. But having said that, it’s delightful to see so many people wanting to catch a glimpse of a rarely found gem.

Reviewer: Adam Penny