Tuesday 26th May 2015
Beautiful Thing runs from 25th May to 30th May
Nottingham Playhouse and Curve Theatre production
Directed by Nikolai Foster
A play by Jonathan Harvey
Designer Colin Richmond
Lighting by Ben Cracknell
Sound by George Dennis
Our rating: ***
When the publicity for Beautiful Thing came out; we thought we were in for something special. The promotion created a sense of expectation. I am not sure that tonight’s offering lived up to the hype.
The five actors were cast well; Sam Jackson’s portrayal of Jamie and Thomas Law’s Ste were good; Vanessa Babirye’s Leah was excellent. The three kids put on lively and entertainment performances. The two adults: Charlie Brooks as Sandra and Gerard McCarthy as her boyfriend Tony were less convincing though never short on character and punch-lines. The play was rather like an episode of East Enders blended with Benefits Street with flavourings of South Park added in.
Set on the landing of three flats in a Bermondsey housing estate, Beautiful Thing is a story of sexual awakening – a tale of self-discovery of two teenage boys – Jamie and Ste – neighbours in the flats and both less than happy individuals, troubled by parents, both having a rough time at school, confused and failing to attain expected standards for working class boys.
Into this not terribly promising background comes a truly beautiful thing; a simply beautiful story of young love told with beautiful simplicity (The Public Reviews)
Jonathan Harvey’s play started life at the Bush Theatre in 1993 – the year that Stonewall began to campaign for an equal age of consent in Britain. The play moved to the West End in September 1994 and in 2002 opened at the Nottingham Playhouse and then went on a UK tour. The world premiere was greeted with rave reviews. A film version of the play was produced by Film4, released in 1996 for TV but the response led to it being screened in cinemas.
In was not until 2001 that the age of consent was set at 16 throughout Britain (except Northern Ireland which did not fall into line until 2009) and since then teenage gay themes have appeared in a variety of popular TV soaps such as Skins and in cinema films Clueless (1995), Easy A (2010) and The Perks of being a Wallflower (2012). On TV, audiences were treated to Queer As Folk (1999 – 2000) and this year Russell T Davies pulled off another amazing coup with Channel 4’s Cucumber and Banana. In this respect Beautiful Thing was ground-breaking in its time.
In his programme note about the play, Director Nikolai Foster reminds us that when Beautiful Thing was launched, Thatcher was in number ten and we still had Section 28. Contemporary context for the play was both a blessing and a curse. Some younger members of the audience might not have appreciated the references to the Richard and Judy TV programme or even the significance of Erasure (which even the characters failed to comprehend) but some of the older audience members knew what these meant and the first half raised some laughs. Sandra (played by Charlie Brooks) refers at one point to an island in Greece which she amusingly refers to as ‘Lesbian’ (meaning Lesbos.)
Foster points out correctly that this is not a ‘gay play’ – it is a play about two working class teenagers who emerge into self-identity and self-understanding through their discovery of what they share in common. As a piece of drama, it is a play in which cathartic scenes rub shoulders with moments of tenderness and funny lines. Sandra asks “you got a match?” and Leah replies “Yea – my arse, your face. ” Jamie says to Ste “There’s no such thing as just a kiss.”
Act two is about coming out. On a working class estate everyone knows everything about everybody else. As Leah says “The walls are paper thin” and this is true of both structural and social walls. Sandra (Jamie’s mother) finds out that she has a gay son and Ste is terrified that his violent and brutal father will kill him if he discovers that he has a son who is queer. Setting the play in a working class culture gave it an edge that would be absent in a more public-school setting (such as we saw in History Boys (2004) with the character of Posner.
The actors were good. Their acting was good. However, I didn’t like the dialogue – it was rather cardboard and lacked the natural fluidity that we would have seen had it been a TV production. Channel 4’s Skins hit the mark with the dialogue but somehow on the stage at Curve the stage-craft failed to get that naturalism into the spoken lines and I think that was a weakness in what was otherwise an excellent production. That did not detract from feeling sympathy for the characters or from being drawn into the plot. The moments in which Jamie (Sam Jackson) and Ste (Thomas Law) are alone on stage were convincing and their acting suggested a real chemistry and rapprochement between them which made their friendship appear real and their affection for each other poignant.
Beautiful Thing was not as good as I hoped it would be, both as a play and as a piece of acting but having said that I enjoyed it a lot. As drama it was thought-provoking and heart-wrenching with moments of engaging tenderness, emotionally charged scenes of weeping and disturbing episodes of conflict. Personally, I thought the ending was decidedly odd – the story stopped almost in mid-flight as though it had run out of time or did not know where to go next. The first act was all about setting the scene and introducing the characters – a necessary part of all stories of course – but for me it dragged on a bit. Act two was where we got the action – the punch-line of the plot. The boys went to a nearby gay bar – a bad move on a housing estate with a mother who was a bar-tender – and were spotted there. That lead to the ‘outing’ and to the play’s denouement. Not wishing to spoil the story, let’s just say the play ended on a positive note. That in itself was an achievement for a play that had a gay element, given that so many similar stories end in death or distress.
Beautiful Thing was a testament to youth and a life-affirming experience. As a drama and as a story it had its short-comings but tonight’s production was well worth seeing. Well up to the bar set by The Woman in Black and Abigail’s Party and the recent Shiv, it represented another success for Curve.