Arts Theatre, London
It has been 20 years since Beautiful Thing first hit the stage. It originally opened in July 2003 at London’s Bush Theatre before a short UK tour and then, a year later, a transfer to the West End. During its West End run, it became a for-TV movie, which was so well received it was given a cinema release. The film proved a hit around the world and rapidly achieved cult status. Since then a number of productions have taken place throughout the world, including several in the UK.
Beautiful Thing is, in essence, a coming of age story – a tale of sexual awakening and sexual identity. It is set at the beginning of the 90’s on a council estate in South London. It centres on a set of three neighbours: Sandra, a single mother who works at a local bar, and her 16-year-old son, Jamie. On one side of their flat lives Ste, one of Jamie’s schoolmates, who lives with his father. On the other side is Leah, who lives with her mother.
Each child has its own demons. Leah’s mother is, in essence, absent; working nights and sleeping all day. As a result, Leah is disaffected with life and, following expulsion from school, spends her days lounging around the estate, smoking cigarettes and listening to Mamma Cass songs.
Ste is in essence his household’s homemaker, washing and cooking for his alcoholic father who, with an increasing degree of regularity, takes out his frustrations on Ste by physically abusing him. In the middle of these two are Jamie and his mother Sandra, who has just started a new relationship with a younger man, Tony. On the surface, they seem to be the most adjusted family, but soon cracks in that household start to show.
Onto this bleak landscape, the friendship between Jamie and Ste develops and slowly emerges into a romance; introducing the added element with coming to terms with sexual identity. So far, so grim. However, the play is far from grim. Yes, each character has their own problems, the dialogue is raw and often vulgar, but Harvey weaves into this a humour and tenderness that lifts it beyond the obvious and presents something wonderfully human and uplifting.
The cast play their roles almost pitch perfect. Initially each comes across as some sort of grotesque caricature, but as the play progresses and we learn more about each, they become more real. The only possible exception is Sandra’s boyfriend, Tony (Oliver Farnworth), whose hen-packed, new age metro-sexuality seems to jar.
It would be all too easy to label this as a gay play, and in fact, that’s what many have done, but it’s beyond that. Harvey’s script is touching, tender and exceptionally playful. In the end, irrespective of the sexuality in question, it’s a story of finding love and happiness against the odds. It’s warm, funny, poignant and, ultimately, uplifting… everything love should be.