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Brief Encounter with ... Beautiful Thing writer Jonathan Harvey

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Jonathan Harvey's seminal play Beautiful Thing is 20 years old. Following a recent production at the Royal Exchange, the play is back - this time in London and then on tour. We caught up with the Coronation Street writer, playwright and novelist to find out what it's like to revisit this classic urban love story two decades on.

Beautiful Thing was staged in Manchester last year and was successfully received. Did that inspire you visit piece again?
Not really, I was approached by Tom O'Connell, the producer, and I knew it was the 20th anniversary this year, so it was more to do with that.

Suranne Jones seems like ideal casting as feisty Sandra. How did that come about?
It was her versatility, which I have seen her display over the years since she left Karen (McDonald in Coronation Street) behind. I think she is good at being tough,  but being warm with it, and they are qualities needed for Sandra. It's also that she's proved herself a strong theatre actress over the years too. We needed a 'name' for Sandra, in order to showcase the play in the West End and take it to reasonably big theatres, someone who would get bums on seats. The list wasn't big! And fortunately Suranne jumped at the chance.

What's it like going back to something like Beautiful Thing now?
Weird. Emotional. But nice. Bit like reading a very old diary.

Ste and Jamie are filled with so much optimism. Were you at their age?
Yes I was. But I made them like that for a reason, it was a political act really. Society was very down on the gays back then and I wanted to offer a happy ending.

Sandra is flawed yet totally devoted to providing for her son. Was she written from scratch or does she stem from someone you know?
Inspired by many women, but written from scratch.

Suranne Jones & Jake Davies (photo: Francis Loney)

So much has changed since the play was written. What's your view on gay marriage?

I think equal marriage is only fair in a society which claims to treat all people equally.

The play remains relevant today. Why do you think this is?
God don't ask me, I don't know. You'd have to ask the audiences. I imagine it's because it doesn't hit you over the head with its politics and it's about coming of age and falling in love more than anything.

What has Nikolai Foster bought to the play?
He is an actors' director; actors love him. There is much tenderness evident in the scenes between the boys.

You have one novel out and one due in the Summer? Would you like to adapt any of these for the stage?
No. TV and film, hopefully, but neither are particularly theatrical.

What did you last see on stage that impressed you?
I loved David Eldridge's In Basildon at the Royal Court because it packed a political punch and was funny as f**k. I also loved A Streetcar Named Desire at Liverpool Playhouse because it's my favourite play.

How would you describe Beautiful Thing to someone unfamiliar with it?
Either: fat f**ked fortysomething tries to inject life into an old dinosaur. Or: an optimistic tale of gay love, set on a council estate.

Have Wincey Willis and Sally Dyvenor (Sally Webster) seen the play and how have they responded to being name checked?
They have. They both came to the Manchester production, and Sally had seen the play 20 years ago at the Bush. I think they're both flattered.

Why do you think audiences continue to respond to Beautiful Thing twenty years on?  

Because it's a sweet story about first love. I think. And it's got some good jokes in it.

Jonathan Harvey was speaking to Glenn Meads

Beautiful Thing is at the Arts Theatre in London until 25 May before touring to Liverpool Playhouse (28 May-1 June), Theatre Royal Brighton (10-15 June) and West Yorkshire Playhouse (3-8 June)


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