Celebrating its twentieth year, Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing arrives at the West Yorkshire Playhouse direct from a West End run, as part of a short UK tour. Judging by this production, which is exquisitely directed by Nikolai Foster and ingeniously designed by Colin Richmond, it's not hard to see why the play has endured.
Set on a council estate in London's Thamesmead in 1993, the story concerns two teenagers, Jamie and Ste, coming to terms with their feelings for each other in a world that offers little hope for happiness and acceptance. But really, this is story about love, longing and needing somebody, which is what makes it so timeless and relatable.
The whole cast slip into their roles like a second skin. Given her high-profile TV and theatre work, Suranne Jones is the headline name, but from the moment she walks out on stage she's Sandra, Jamie's devoted mother; a woman whose tough life and daily struggles show in every word and movement. She's a character who could easily have let circumstances beat her down, but she's fighting back; whether it's taking pride in her job as a barmaid, or prettying-up her council flat with new wallpaper and hanging baskets.
The standout performance comes from Jake Davies as Jamie, a young man on the cusp of adulthood who falls in love, literally, with the boy next door. He's entirely believable and moving as an outsider coming to grips with his sexuality. Danny-Boy Hatchard brings a quiet intensity to the role of Ste, a popular young man with an abusive father and ambitions for a better life. The emotional struggles these boys go through form the heart of the play.
Rounding out the cast are Zaraah Abrahams as Leah, the boys' Mama Cass-obsessed neighbor, and Oliver Farnsworth as Tony, Sandra's arty, nice-but-dim, young lover. Both bring great emotional depth to their showy characters.
The love story itself is beautifully handled (never more so than in a scene with Jamie and Ste just kicking a football about) and this is the main strength of play. The relationship develops in such a way that you never once question that these two young men need each other. The odds may be stacked against them, but there is a glimmer of hope that things might just work out, and you're rooting for them the whole way.
Filled with raw humour, truthful emotion and authenticity, it's a play where you hope the actors don't come out for their curtain calls. Not because they don't deserve the applause, just because you want to leave these characters alone and unbroken in their world to continue their lives, having just seen a chapter in a much longer story.
In short, two hours at the theatre doesn't get much better than this.
Beautiful Thing is at the West Yorkshire between 3 June and 8 June as part of a UK tour