I’m not going to put you out like an empty bottle in the morning.
First performed at the Bush Theatre in London in 1993, Jonathan Harvey’s tale of two teenage boys falling in love on a South London council estate marked a significant move towards gay drama entering the mainstream. Devoid of politics, anger and guilt, Beautiful Thing‘s funny and tender love story had such an impact it was made into a successful film. But how does it play twenty years later in a society where, though there is still a long way to go, many aspects of being gay are much easier? Has it become a timeless classic, or does it feel naive and dated, having lost much of that original revelatory shock and sense of danger and jeopardy?
Colin Richmond’s set is immediately evocative of the Thamesmead estate, with washing lines, flower baskets and even a shopping trolley hanging from the walls. In the three flats on this particular walkway live three classmates: loud-mouthed school dropout Leah, football mad Ste, and Cagney and Lacey obsessed Jamie. Sandra, Jamie’s barmaid mother, is the only parent to appear on-stage, though we soon learn that Ste’s father is violent towards him and Leah’s mother shows an alarming disinterest in her life. Thus, as well as portraying first love between two teenage boys, Beautiful Thing also references such weighty issues as domestic violence, abuse and neglect, yet the burgeoning relationship between Jamie and Ste is very much the focus, and while Harvey mentions the others, they are never really tackled.
Jake Davies and Danny-Boy Hatchard are excellent as Jamie and Ste: Davies immediately wins the audience over as the endearing, slightly geeky and awkward Jamie, who reads his mother’s old issues of HELLO! in bed, loves to watch The Sound of Music and does a mean Christine Cagney impression; Hatchard is in almost constant motion, beautifully capturing a teenage boy’s excess energy, but at the same time is noticeably quiet and reticent. The two leads wonderfully capture the awkwardness and excitement of first love, as well as the accompanying sense of surprise and shock.
Suranne Jones is the big-name draw as Sandra, and she doesn’t disappoint. Her verbal sparring with mouthy Leah – who almost gives her a run for her money – is perfectly timed and very funny, and she successfully balances Sandra’s outward sexuality and apparent confidence with moments of vulnerability and insecurity. Sandra and Jamie’s relationship is particularly well-drawn; there’s a strong sense of the co-dependence that can arise in single parent families, but also moments of humour and great tenderness, particularly in Jamie’s beautifully judged coming-out scene.
The only weak link in an otherwise strong cast is Oliver Farnworth as Tony, Sandra’s boyfriend. They met in the aisle in Tesco, and Farnworth never manages to make Tony anything other than a caricature of a middle-class stoner who is annoyingly curious about how the other half lives. Harvey fails to make it clear why Sandra was with him when all he seemed to do was annoy her.
References to certain products, personalities and events mean that Beautiful Thing occasionally veers dangerously towards becoming a period piece. And, while the play is wonderfully sweet and tender, at times it feels rather slim and rushed. Yet director Nikolai Foster ensures that the humour and warmth of Harvey’s writing is constantly allowed to shine while also achieving a good balance between the more difficult emotional moments; he gives them room to breathe without letting them tip into sentimentality. The edgier, darker, undercurrents in Beautiful Thing could have been better integrated yet cannot be ignored, and yet some cracking one-lines, a pounding Mama Cass soundtrack and the almost overwhelming positivity make for a very enjoyable evening.