Beautiful Thing, Beautiful Start

Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing lived up to its title; but it has also become, with the benefit of hindsight at least, a Significant Thing, too.

One of Harvey's contemporaries, Joe Penhall, recently cited the play as at the vanguard in re-establishing the place (not to mention commercial prospects) for new writing in the 1990s. There were, Penhall told me, a remarkable combination of events that produced this renaissance. "It's like the digits on a combination locking into place - there are half a dozen steps to trace, and the first one was Beautiful Thing being so successful. Suddenly, everyone realised that young playwrights could do something commercially viable, and I think Jonathan blasted the doors off, really."

When I quote this back to Harvey during a recent telephone interview, he's hesitant at first but eventually pleased to acknowledge the praise. "It didn't feel like that at the time - it felt like it was just another play being put on," he says. "But I'm very flattered by Mr Penhall's words, it's very nice to think that it could be deemed that important. But it was quite unusual for a play to start at the Bush and end up at the Duke of York's - over the last few years we've become more accustomed to it with the Royal Court taking up residency there, but at the time it was unusual."

The play was unusual in another even more important way: in an era of AIDS and the edgily earnest dramas that followed in its wake, Beautiful Thing was a feelgood gay play that - played out to the accompaniment of a Mamas and Papas soundtrack - told a touching, tender story about two teenagers discovering their sexuality in the unlikely (and yet therefore highly realistic) environment of a Thamesmead council estate.

Relishing the Populist Touch

Harvey demonstrated then, and has continued to since, that he has a genuinely populist touch. When I ask him if he considers himself a populist writer, he answers: "Absolutely. I don't see the point in not being that. At the National, I overheard two people talking about me, and saying, 'He's very populist, you know'. They said it negatively, but I was delighted."

Babies, which was premiered at the Royal Court, is his most obviously autobiographical play. Its lead character is a teacher, as Harvey was himself, before becoming a full-time playwright. "It all happened. When I went to dinner parties, I would tell people about my experiences of teaching; so instead of boring everyone at dinner parties with these stories, I turned them into a play." Harvey, a native Liverpudlian, moved to London in 1990 to teach but gave up that career two years later to write.

Guiding Star, co-produced at the National Theatre's Cottesloe with the Liverpool Everyman, not only returned Harvey to his home town, but also saw him taking a deeply serious turn with a play that looked at fathers and sons who had survived the Hillsborough disaster. His plays have stayed darker since. Death is often now a character in his plays, literally so in the ghostly figure that watches over the action in Hushabye Mountain, another play of his produced first by English Touring Theatre and seen at Hampstead Theatre as part of a national tour. "It's the play I'm most proud of," he confesses, "and my most ambitious play as well. I thought the acting, directing and most of the writing was of a very good quality."

At Home in Hampstead

Guiding Star also brought him to Hampstead Theatre, where his latest play, Out in the Open, recently premiered under the direction of actress-turned-director Kathy Burke (and where it returns for another run from 22 May). Set over a long summer weekend in London, it sounds like another mature play in the Hushabye mould, and Harvey agrees. "It has similar themes, in as much as someone has died and a mother is involved - it's quite reflective, but also very funny, there's a big secret and a lot of twists and turns. It's very intense in its timescale, taking place over three days, and more serious than Gimme Gimme Gimme".

The latter is, of course, his comic entree to the world of television. There have been two series so far with a third on the way in the summer. Harvey admits, however, that "though you can earn money and be comfortable by doing television and film, I really miss being able to see people's faces, hearing their laughter and sensing their emotions. With stuff on telly, unless you're really sad and have all your mates around to watch it when it goes out, you're not going to get that - it's much more solitary."

Closer to Heaven & a Musical Hit

Another recent departure for Harvey is heading for the West End's tiny Arts Theatre this month - his first musical, Closer to Heaven. Harvey has fashioned an original London clubland story around a score by the Pet Shop Boys, who have provided original songs rather than just offering a Mamma Mia!-like back catalogue. The project has been off and on since 1996, gathering force last May when the team mounted a workshop to view the fruits of their on-paper efforts.

"From my point of view, that was a brilliant experience," Harvey recalls. "I feel I know a bit about playwriting; that doesn't mean I always get it right, but I can read my own scripts and see where the flaws and the holes are. But I couldn't do that with a musical; I didn't really understand the transition between songs and scenes, so having a workshop was really useful," he pauses, noticing the unintentional pun - the producer for Closer to Heaven is Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Theatre Company. "Up until then, we thought it was brilliant and in great shape; but that made us realise there was a lot of work to be done, so we've gone back to the drawing board, and completely refashioned it."

Will Harvey have a hit on his hands with the Britain's chart-topping pop duo? Theatregoers will be able to judge the result of this intriguing collaboration for themselves very soon.

Closer to Heaven opens at the 350-seat Arts Theatre on 31 May 2001 (previews from 15 May). Out in the Open returns to the Hampstead Theatre from 22 May to 16 June.