It’s 20 years since Jonathan Harvey’s gay coming-of-age story first hit the London stage. Premiering at the Bush Theatre in 1993, the story of Ste and Jamie’s journey towards young love transferred to the West End before becoming a seminal gay film back in 1996, and now it’s back at the Arts Theatre before a national tour. Any child of the ‘90s with a faint appreciation for Harvey’s work will be thrilled to see it back, although it’s hard not to compare it with the film, which benefited from spot-on performances and a beautifully gentle touch.
As mouthy but supportive mum Sandra, Suranne Jones excels at the comic side of her character but could show much more gumption in the dramatic moments – you never really feel as if she’s fully connecting. The same is true of Oliver Farnworth as Sandra's hippyish boyfriend Tony. While Farnworth portrays Tony's zaniness well, he veers too far into hamminess and doesn’t quite get across Tony’s essential goodness – yes, he’s an idiot, yes, he’s pretentious and silly, but he means well, tries his best and gets nothing in return.
New graduate Danny-Boy Hatchard runs the emotional gamut as closed off, confused Ste, living his life in fear of violence from his father and brother. Hatchard, equally good at cocky posturing and sensitive and lonely, creates some lovely, subtle moments between Ste and Jamie (Jake Davies), who hides from bullies on the football pitch but sucks up the courage to make the first move. Davies has the most to do and excels at all of it – from comedy to pure hurt, he’s beautifully nuanced throughout.
Pleasant and just on the right side of saccharine, this production of Beautiful Thing still needs greater oomph and depth from half the cast to make it great, and which will probably come as the run settles. The references heavily date the piece and make some punchlines inaccessible – who in their 20s has heard of Wincey Willis? – and it also suffers from being unable to show the development of Ste and Jamie’s relationship outside of the claustrophobic walls of their housing block.
However, there are some stunning, heart-thumping moments between Hatchard and Davies that redeem things. As the pair lie together in Jamie’s room, Jamie’s body drapes over Ste’s and their bodies lie flush, hands almost touching. The strains of "16 Going On 17" ring out, a tingle runs along your spine and you are still, silent and spellbound. More of that, please.