“Some things are hard to say”
Somewhat appropriately, this 20th anniversary production of Beautiful Thing arrives in London just as a writer, who is carrying much of Jonathan Harvey’s legacy in giving life to a rich tapestry of diverse gay characters, has just closed his own gently touching play of young gay romance Jumpers for Goalposts (look out for its UK tour in the autumn). In the 20 years since Harvey put pen to paper, there have been significant legal, cultural and social changes so that gratefully, we are now in a world where many aspects of being gay are indeed easier. But at the same time, we should not forget that the battle is far from being won – there’s a constant struggle against fear, prejudice, violence, that should never be underestimated, no matter how many ‘gay plays’ may appear in our theatres.
What makes Harvey’s play so special is that it represents one of the first times in which gay characters took centre stage in a play that wasn’t particularly issue-driven and instead, serves up a straight love story (badumtish). Ste and Jamie are two regular working-class South London lads, everyday schoolboys living next door to each other and over the passage of a hot summer, finding that they’ve an awful lot more in common than they ever realised. And that’s essentially the sum of it: ostensibly a ‘gentle’ topic, but the slow but steady discovery of their sexuality and what that is going to mean for their futures, and the worlds of emotion that can accompany the decision to come out are huge, potentially life-changing matters and it is Harvey’s sensitive but assured handling of this that makes Beautiful Thing the timeless success that it is and will continue to be for at least another 20 years more.
But to the production at hand. Nikolai Foster captures much of the delicate innocent magic of the writing through some excellent casting choices. Jake Davies and Danny-Boy Hatchard are just gorgeously right as the teenage lovers, the former’s Jamie refreshingly appealing in his geekiness and the latter’s Jamie a fantastic stage debut with a nuanced understanding of the trauma that accompanies difficult family relationships, whether that violence is physical or emotional. The understated way in which both these actors portray their burgeoning connection has its own quiet power but the other characters of the play also add another dimension and a distinctive colour.
Suranne Jones’ fiercely protective mother Sandra prowls with an instinctive wit, she is armed with some cracking one-liners mostly aimed at Zaraah Abrahams’ neighbour Leah, a school dropout with an amusing Mama Cass fixation and an equally engaging bolshiness. And Jones and Abrahams are so good that one is left here wishing that we could explore a bit more of their characters, not least through the fascinating dynamic behind their sparring. Oliver Farnworth’s Tony, Sandra’s lover, sure looks good but is by far the least developed of the roles and doesn’t always feel as comfortable a fit in the role as he could.
Colin Richmond’s set looks good in forming the council estate backdrop to the story, my only real problem came with the choice of venue – the Arts Theatre isn’t particularly well suited to the telling of such tenderly intimate stories and so I wouldn’t recommend buying tickets too far back in the theatre or in the circle if at all possible. But I would recommend buying them, to witness some of the tenderest performances and one of the funniest scripts in London and to see not just an important representation of the genuine scope not just of sexuality but also of class that makes up our country.