Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing has been staged many times and the writer himself stopped the play being performed for a while, as he felt it was becoming too familiar and that the quality of the productions was slipping. He has always wanted to have something staged at the Royal Exchange so he reversed his decision. Thank god, as this gorgeous piece remains just as funny and poignant as it did - almost twenty years ago.
Sarah Frankcom is the perfect director to bring back Beautiful Thing as she has a lightness of touch which illuminates many of the tender scenes. This play has been described as an 'urban fairytale' - as we follow the developing love story between two teenage boys - Jamie & Ste (played with conviction and genuine chemistry by Matthew Tennyson and Tommy Vine).
Jamie's mum - Sandra (Claire-Louise Cordwell) is a brassy bar manager with a heart of gold who reacts with pain and anger - as she cannot understand why Jamie did not confide in her. Her new age boyfriend Tony (Alex Price) keeps her in compliments but brings no cash into the house - so every penny counts - thus Jamie often feels alone.
The lads' friend and neighbour Leah (Tara Hodge) is obsessed with Mama Cass but this upbeat music masks the fact that things are not "getting better" for this lonely teen. The synopsis may sound miserable and stereotypically 'British' - as the setting is a council estate block of flats in Thamesmead. But Harvey injects so much optimism into the still sparkling script and the game performers deliver his lines with the right amount of pathos.
The two leads are totally believable as the young lovers. Tennyson conveys Jamie's awkwardness, wit and sense of wide-eyed wonder beautifully and Vine convinces you that he is a sportsman by day but beaten black and blue by night - at the hands of his overbearing father. You buy into the love story totally - as these two fine actors capture the feelings of 'first love' with ease. Hodge's Leah is less over-the-top than I have seen before and this benefits the play, as you sense how sad and lonely the character really is - thanks to this talented actress.
Cordwell delivers a rich and multi-layered turn and displays confusion, heartache and joy in a variety of scenes. She is stunning to watch. Price is not the best Tony I have seen as he underplays a little too much - but he does act well in his scenes with Tennyson as again - there is a connection to the material.
Liz Ashcroft's set design is evocative but due to staging the piece in
the round, the sense of claustrophobia is missing, sadly. Also some
lines are missed and some scenes are not always visible due to poor
But, ignore these minor quibbles as Harvey's heartfelt humour, Frankcom's fearless direction (she adds a brave, yet fitting and original finale), and some perfectly played performances - all contribute to an enchanting evening which more than lives up to the title.