Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing debuted in 1993 beneath the threat of Section 28 and a homosexual Age of Consent at twenty-one, and 20 years on, with a drastically altered political landscape the play still resonates, like all good theatre, transcending its setting. However, for a 2013 audience in the heart of Soho, a play about two boys who fall in love does not evoke the same fervent, excitable reaction. Prejudice abounds still, perhaps as flagrantly as ever, but Beautiful Thing’s broader relevance holds more focus for a contemporary crowd. Fortunately, a play that so eloquently communicates themes of loneliness, abuse, family and self-acceptance will always remain worthy of dramatisation, even if some of its original cogency has been diluted with age.
Love in this play is as obvious when the characters hurl abuse at each other as when they kiss goodnight.
Fifteen year old Jamie (Jake Davies) falls in love with the boy-next-door, Ste (Danny-Boy Hatchard) who wears bruises of domestic abuse beneath his school uniform. Jamie’s lively, impassioned mother (Suranne Jones) works in a bar around the clock, unwavering and determined. The pride she takes in her work is symbolised by the hanging baskets adorning her front door, colouring the otherwise bleak Thamesmead estate. It is with colour such as this that Harvey resists the uncomfortably dense trappings of the saccharine or over-sentimental. Love in this play is as obvious when the characters hurl abuse at each other as when they kiss goodnight. Simple lines such as “I’ve not been hiding,” feebly repeated by Ste, filter sadness into the consciousness of the audience without bombarding us with it. The play is laugh-out-loud funny from beginning to end, its characters abundantly loveable, but the able cast are having to work much harder in order to inject a fresh vitality.
David Plater’s innovative lighting design paints the oppressive humidity of the hot summer, evoking an insufferable breeding ground for mischief and dreams. The eclectic soundtrack stirs memories, tugs at the heart and injects energy into the slick, captivating transitions. The teal set (complete with pop-up bed and obligatory council-estate shopping trolley), functions brilliantly, signifying the gritty, urban wasteland AND its escape route, but the use of the auditorium for entrances and exits is distracting and does not serve in the way this device might conventionally have been intended to.
Nikolai Foster’s direction, his meticulous detail and delicate touches give this production its joyous polish, but the less intimate group scenes lack pace. Sandra’s almost psychotic shifts into violence feel uncharacteristically erratic and her boyfriend, useless but hunky Tony, is, at times, caricatured. However, these details do not undermine the overall quality of Beautiful Thing. You can’t help but grin at its melt in the mouth optimism; this hugely enjoyable, if not provocative production is a reminder that love doesn’t fit neatly into society’s restrictive moulds. Rather, like Sandra’s hanging baskets, it can flower anywhere.
**** (4 stars)
Runs until 25th May then tours