First produced almost 20 years ago, this play by Jonathan Harvey still seems just as fresh, just as relevant, and just as captivating as if it had been written yesterday. Since its birth, the play has been produced all over the world, and it was turned into a film in 1996, directed by Hettie MacDonald. That well-deserved success demonstrates the show's widespread and enduring appeal, which seems to lie in the fact that audiences see more in the play than merely a tale of two teenagers confronting and coming to terms with their sexuality.
'Beautiful Thing' is set in the concrete jungle of Thamesmead, a district of South East London, largely built in the 1960s and typically consisting of blocks of flats with walkways between. In one of these flats, Jamie (Jake Davies) lives with his mother, Sandra (Suranne Jones), a barmaid who has aspirations to run her own pub. Jamie is fifteen and rarely manages to stay in school when sports lessons are on the day's timetable, and we later learn that he is a frequent victim of bullying. Another teenager, Ste (played by Danny-Boy Hatchard), lives next door with his brother and father both of whom seem to beat him with alarming ferocity and regularity. A third teenager, Leah (Zaraah Abrahams), lives in yet another flat on the other side of Jamie's. Leah has been kicked-out of school, and is obsessed with the songs of Cass Elliott (also known as Mama Cass from her time with the Mamas and the Papas). Sandra and Leah despise each other and a running war of words rages between them and which eventually boils-over into a physical fight when Sandra attempts to throttle Leah with a hose pipe. And Sandra, like many parents having to cope with the emotional turmoil of their offspring's adolescence, also finds herself sparring with her son.
However, the story is not just about verbal and physical duelling, domestic violence, bullying, or the trials of growing-up. When Ste is once again subjected to more violence in his own home, he seeks refuge in Sandra's flat and has to share Jamie's bed and one thing leads to another, and the pair strike-up a relationship which is not kept a secret for very long.
Jonathan Harvey's dialogue is not only completely authentic – as it should be since he was a teacher for a time in Thamesmead – but there is also plenty of humour right the way through it. Like most good drama, this often emerges at some of the most poignant moments. For example when Ste finds out that Sandra knows about his relationship with Jamie and starts crying, Sandra tells Jamie to get the box of “Autumnal Shades” (tissues) from indoors. Mr Harvey also manages to weave a rather complex and touching story without ever making it seem sentimental or in any way contrived.
Director Nikolai Foster faced a considerable challenge in managing this revival, given the success of both the original production and the film. However, the result is a superbly-crafted piece of work. The fight scenes are especially well-orchestrated and timed to perfection. The setting is simplicity itself, but ample to suggest the somewhat brutal surroundings. Mr Foster is well-served by an exceptional cast who make every word and action count, and never falter in portraying real and believable characters. Overall, this is a first-rate revival of a hugely enjoyable and moving play.