Beautiful Thing is beautifully timed. In a month where the Head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, tells us that homosexuality is "not acceptable" Toby Frow's production of Jonathan Harvey's play demonstrates that this stigma and stereotype can and should be challenged.
This play was first performed in 1993. It has since been revived, filmed and its author Jonathan Harvey, deservedly, won the John Whiting award.
The play is set on a Council Estate's walkway where three teenagers' flats are side-by-side.
In flat 125 lives Sandra (Sophie Stanton). She is an over protective single parent, pub manageress, a gutsy and domineering woman who lives with her teenage son Jamie, superbly played by Andrew Garfield. They are frequently visited by her newly acquired dippy and toadying 27 years old boy-friend, Tony (Leo Bill).
Jamie is an obedient son who tries to break away from his mother's apron strings. He plays truant to avoid PE in order to escape being ridiculed by his classmates for being hopeless at sports. In contrast, Ste (Gavin Brocker), who lives in flat 126, loves sport but is bullied and used as a punching bag not by classmates but by his alcoholic and brutal father and his brother. Though neither father nor brother ever appear, their shadows accompany Ste throughout the play. In the last, charmingly acted scene when he and Jamie dance, the fear of repercussion should his father see them hangs like a dark cloud over him.
Leah from flat 124 is fabulously portrayed by Naomi Bentley. Her performance is hilarious, exaggerated but convincing. She will make an excellent candidate for a Big Brother series. Leah was expelled from school and now is 'bored to tears' and doesn't know what to do with her days. Her hot pants and seductive outfits, together with her alluring body movements and gestures in the company of the two boys who are attracted to each other, hilariously punctuate the pains of the other two adolescents. She idolises Mama Cass the soul singer. When she sings out of tune 'For dreams are just like wine\ And I am drunk with mine' she unveils the tender but frustrated young woman beneath the façade of the crude, streetwise teenager. She does not take long to conclude that there is a sexual relationship between Jamie and Ste; she uses her knowledge to 'blackmail' the two adolescent boys to not be excluded from their company to the park or the pub, even if it means going to a gay pub. The mixture of understanding, respect and acceptance are all delicately interwoven into the rough and, at times, cruel verbal exchanges between the characters.
This is a didactic play in so far as it exposes issues of first love between two young male teenagers who have to face not only their peer group but also adults who may accept and understand, like Sandra and Leah, or those who may ridicule and even threaten with thrashing, like Ste's father.
There are two key moments in the play: first when Ste escapes from his father's wrath to Sandra's flat where she offers him a shelter for the night and he then has to share bed with Jamie. The raw marks on Ste's back expose Ste's shame of being beaten and bullied by his father and brother. Jamie's attempts to ease the pain by applying 'Body Shop' lotion provide him with a delicate opportunity to hint at his emotions.
Jamie's bedroom is brilliantly hinged between the audience and the 'walkway' and leaves no hiding place for the teenagers' transition from adolescence to adulthood.
The dance at the end is the climax in the two teenagers shift from being confused, bashful and hesitant to being totally absorbed in each other at the exclusion of others and this leaves Sandra and Leah no choice but to join in.
The dance is also the crescendo as the two teenagers graduate from being confused, bashful and hesitant to being totally absorbed in each other at the exclusion of others, leaving Sandra and Leah no choice but to join in.
Excellent performances, great staging - this is a witty and inspiring play.
Don't miss it.
Philip Fisher reviewed the revival, also at the Sound Theatre