Whatsonstage.com theatregoers enjoyed a lively discussion with playwright Jonathan Harvey (pictured, with Carli Norris who plays Sandra) and members of the company at our Outing to Beautiful Thing at the Sound Theatre last night (Thursday, 27 July 2006). We were particularly honoured to be joined in the audience by Sir Ian McKellen and Antony Cotton (Coronation Street, Queer as Folk).

Toby Frow’s acclaimed revival of Harvey’s award-winning 1993 gay “urban fairy tale” had a sell-out season at the Sound this past February. During a long, hot summer on the Thamesmead Estate in south-east London, two teenage boys gradually discover their mutual affection and love.

In Frow’s production Gavin Brocker reprises his performance as Ste with new cast members Jonathan Bailey, Steven Meo, Carli Norris and Michelle Terry. Beautiful Thing runs until 26 August 2006. It’s the final production at the Sound, which will close in September to make way for a new hotel development (See News, 21 Jul 2006.

Harvey was joined by Frow, designer Ben Stones and the entire cast for the Q&A, which featured insights into what inspired Harvey to write the play, how attitudes towards gay people have changed, and whether Jamie and Ste would live happily ever after…

Jonathan Harvey on what inspired him to write the play

I wrote it in 1992, I was a teacher in Thamesmead when I was 23 or 24 and I’d had quite a few plays produced but not on the gay theme. Growing up gay in Liverpool there were no positive role models on telly or in theatre, and I’d seen working class stories about lads coming out and they ended up selling their bodies for ten woodbines, which wasn’t necessarily my experience! I had a very supportive family, obviously it wasn’t without it’s drama, but I wanted to write a play like that and a play where the gay characters have a happy ending and waltz off together, so that was my agenda for writing it. Also, when I was living in that area I went to the pub one night and there were these two lads snogging at the bar and one of them I recognised as coming from the estate near me and some of the queens there were being really catty about it saying “get a room” or whatever the equivalent was in those days, and my heart went out to them because I thought they’re doing that because they can’t do that where they live. You’re lucky to get a first production of a play you’ve written, so to get a second and a third one, and this one is wonderful. There’s always something I don’t like in the productions I go and see but this one is fantastic. I wrote the play in two weeks lying on my bed.

Toby Frow on why he wanted to revive it

It was very different to the stuff I’ve been doing the last few years, I did an Arthur Miller piece, A View from the Bridge, which is very intense, and Someone to Watch Over Me set in a prison camp, this sort of felt like a bit of a good challenge in a way. I think also this theatre really helps, it just has the right sense of time and space.

Jonathan Harvey on how involved he was with this production

I don’t usually get heavily involved and I wasn’t hugely involved with this one; I’ve seen lots of productions all over the country and I’m always disappointed with something in the production! With this one I was very involved in casting and I knew once the casting was right that it would be great. I didn’t go to any of the main rehearsals, but I was around for the dress rehearsal.

The cast on why they wanted to accept their roles

Carli Norris: I had given up theatre work at the beginning of the year, I had just married and wanted to have a baby and just hadn’t been given any really good plays for a couple of years. But when I got this audition obviously I thought I’m too young, so I haven’t got this one! But when I got offered the role I thought I really had to do it. It is such a great play and a really good role.
Gavin Brocker: It’s lovely, I’m very lucky to come back to the production and work with another actor as Jamie who makes it so different and gives you a completely different buzz. Whenever you go back to a role you want to create something fresh, and hopefully I’ve done that.
Steven Meo: I was the last one to be cast, I was cast on the Wednesday to start rehearsals the following Monday – if all else fails, there’s always Wales. I haven’t done a lot of theatre for a while and it’s a bit nerve-wracking to get back into it, but I’m, really enjoying it.
Jonathan Bailey: It is an amazing role and throughout the rehearsals I just wanted to give it my best shot. Carli and Gavin and Toby helped me so much and made it so easy – but I was very nervous at first.

Jonathan Harvey on how attitudes towards gay people have changed

I’m writing a trilogy of plays following a gay man’s life - the first takes place in 1988, and in the second one he’s got AIDS and in the third act he’s looking back on the gay scene now and wondering whether it’s all worth it. A lot has changed but also a lot hasn’t changed – people using gay as a word to mean rubbish really does get on my tits. I wrote a coming out story for Coronation Street and people were still describing it as scandalous in the tabloids. I think there are still many things we have to fight for.

Jonathan Harvey on whether or not he would write a sequel, and whether Jamie and St have a future

I wouldn’t’ write a sequel. This is a story about first love. It’s not necessarily going to stand the test of time. I think Jamie will probably go off to university and Ste will probably be left by the wayside really. I might be an old cynic… but it’s sweet that they got together.

(Disappointed "awwwwws" from the audience)

Jonathan Harvey: Yes. Yes they do stay together for ever.

- by Caroline Ansdell