Romeo and Juliet might have had a posh balcony in Verona from which to proclaim their inflamed passion for each other. But after spending an evening laughing and crying my way through this enthralling revival of Jonathan Harvey’s gay urban fairy tale, I’ve got to admit that even Shakespeare couldn’t have come up with a sexier location for a young lover’s trysting place than one of the grim concrete walkways linking Thamesmead’s glum high-rise social housing.
Up here, two star-cross’d schoolboy neighbours fall for each other. And in Toby Frow’s beautifully judged production – first seen at Sound Theatre in January but now substantially re-cast – sensitive Jamie and sporty Ste’s gradual sexual awakening as they find their true gay selves never fails to set your pulse racing and your heart aflutter alongside theirs.
These days even gay chavs like these can grow up looking forward to registering a civil partnership if they want to, in the same way that glitzy celebs like Elton and David have walked happily down the aisle together. So watching the two boys battling with prevailing social prejudices and conquering their own sexual anxieties there’s always a nagging feeling that times really have changed for the better since Beautiful Thing was first produced at the Bush Theatre in 1993, when its upbeat message of hope made such an impact. But Harvey’s flair for switching between unsentimental romance, teenage angst and low-brow banter transcends any political message, ensuring that laughter flows easily alongside the torrid tensions and the occasional tears.
Performing on Ben Stones’ clever little concrete-clad set, which enables the action to flow seamlessly between a soul-less walkway of faceless front doors and the interior scenes, Frow’s extremely impressive cast create characters that are so genuine you can’t fail to bond with them. Jonathan Bailey’s endearingly innocent Jamie, who identifies more with campy old movies and Cagney and Lacey than laddish pursuits like football, and Gavin Brocker’s confused Ste, coping with an abusive home life as well as his secret sexuality, are both extremely impressive and give knock-out performances, as does Carli Norris as no-nonsense Sandra, Jamie’s south London single mum with a mouth as big as the Blackwall Tunnel and a heart of working class gold.
Steven Meo as Sandra's neo-hippy boyfriend is hilarious, as is Michelle Terry’s Leah, the slutty girl next door with an obsession for Mama Cass records, who’s clearly destined to become Lynda La Hughes’ mum. A memorable production of a classic gay love story – but you don’t have to be gay to leave with a big smile on your face, even in this wilting heat wave, as the Sound Theatre is beautifully air-conditioned.
- Roger Foss
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from January 2006 and this production’s original run at the Sound Theatre.
It’s been 11 years since Beautiful Thing was last seen in London. Jonathan Harvey’s award-winning debut play premiered at the Bush Theatre in 1993, toured the country and then transferred to the Donmar Warehouse and on to the West End’s Duke of York’s where it finished in January 1995. A year later, a film version was released.
Arriving at the intimate Sound Theatre just weeks after the UK’s new legislation on civil partnerships came into effect, Toby Frow’s new stage production of Harvey’s “urban fairy tale” about two teenage boys who fall in love on a south London council estate seems like more of a celebration than ever. Based on the jubilant audience reaction on press night, you wouldn’t be surprised to see rice raining down on the cast along with the bravos. And why not? Should Harvey ever write a sequel, you’d like to think that, circa 2006, his young protagonists Jamie and Ste would have matured into a couple happily exchanging their vows in Woolwich Town Hall.
As it is, they and their bolshy flirt neighbour Leah are three teenagers on the verge of adulthood one long, hot summer in Thamesmead. Teased by his classmates for being rubbish at sports, Jamie plays truant to avoid PE. Athletic Ste has no problem at school but is tormented by his violent father and brother. And Leah is bored and lonely; expelled from school, she finds company in the recordings of her idol, soul singer Mama Cass.
When Ste flees from trouble at home one night, he finds more than he bargained for bunking up with best mate Jamie. So begins the two boys’ sexual awakening and their search for identity, coming to terms with what it means to be queer. “Are you gay?” asks Ste, in an accusatory tone after their first confusing fumble. “I’m very happy,” replies Jamie, “when I’m with you.”
But this is not just a story about gay love. It’s about finding first love - the “beautiful thing” of the title - and all the bashfulness, insecurity, aching pain and ultimately joy that that entails.
Played out on the estate’s concrete walkway where the teenagers’ flats are side-by-side (Ben Stones’ brilliant design snugly fills the Sound space), it’s a journey that is thrillingly and touchingly rendered in Frow’s exuberant production by a cast – following in the footsteps of a roll call of now famous names including Jonny Lee Miller, Rhys Ifans and Ben Daniels – that is never short of wonderful.
As Jamie and Ste, Andrew Garfield and Gavin Brocker achieve moments of great tenderness, while Garfield’s hilarious homage to TV’s Cagney and Lacey is priceless. Naomi Bentley goes boisterously over-the-top as Leah. And Sophie Stanton, who played Leah in the original production, returns now as Jamie’s resilient mother Sandra. Giving as good as she gets with the backtalk, Sandra is also the moral heart of the play, demonstrating that acceptance is possible. Leo Bill, as Sandra’s dippy toy boy, is also sweetly ingratiating.
- Terri Paddock