Some plays transcend their place in time while others seem to be very much of the moment in which they were written/performed. I’m sure the many Zoom Theatre productions which have been pretty much the norm over the last ten months or so will, one day, have a curiosity value to future generations as a record of a time when theatres were shut during the great pandemic. As I settled to watch Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing yesterday, I wondered whether it might also fall into the category of an historical artefact that had had its day; as it was, I was pleasantly surprised.
This comedy-drama tale of two teenagers on a south east London estate coming out in the early 1990s was a bold departure from the more usual issue led dramas tackling this sort of subject. Harvey’s breakthrough was to treat the “issue” as just part of the narrative lacing the dialogue with sharp comedy which disarms the audience. This is probably one of the reasons the play still works nearly 30 years after its first performances (this version was recorded in 2013 for the 20th anniversary production). Originally subtitled, perhaps rather archly, “an urban fairy tale” it has now become simply “a love story” – a sure sign that times have changed.
There’s a star turn from Suranne Jones before she really hit the big time with Doctor Foster and Gentleman Jack. Here she is Sandra, a working-class single mother who has ambitions to run her own pub. Fiercely protective of her own independence and of her 15-year-old son Jamie, she takes no nonsense from anyone, especially next door’s Leah (Zaraah Abrahams) with whom she is at perpetual loggerheads simply because she sees rather too much of herself in her young neighbour. Living in the third flat in view is fellow teenager Ste trying to hold his family together even as his abusive father and drug dealing brother (both unseen) do their best to wreck it. Following a savage beating, Ste stays over one night having to share a bed with Jamie. The latter acts on the crush he already harbours and despite some initial upsets, romance blossoms.
As the two central teenagers Jake Davies and Danny-Boy Hatchard give thoroughly engaging and thoughtfully structured performances. Davies’ Jamie is ostensibly the less confident of the two but actually initiates the relationship reassuring the other that all will be well. Meanwhile Hatchard’s Ste seems to be in control of his destiny as one of the popular crowd, not least with neighbour Leah, but is actually dying inside as he tries to combat his own nature and his neglectful family. Small wonder that he is the one to finally break down in floods of tears.
Harvey clearly has drawn on his own experiences in writing this pair with their dialogue pinpointing the often painful nature of coming to terms with one’s own nature. The two female characters are also excellently drawn both having a waspish wit and clearly determined to succeed on their own terms. Harvey is, however, less successful in his portrait of Tony, Sandra’s new younger lover where the character seems underwritten despite Oliver Farnworth’s best efforts to round him out.
The setting is very well realised (Colin Richmond) and totally convinces as a courtyard in an urban environment. There is a palpable sense of summer heat radiating from the stage – the summer of 1990 was one of the hottest on record, I recall – and means that the events which take place make sense being set outside. The lighting design of David Plater helps to convince when we move inside the flat to Jamie’s bedroom. Nikolai Foster directs with a very sure touch which highlights the comedy while still paying due regard to the more heartfelt drama and uses the music of Mama Cass (Leah’s rather surprising infatuation) to comment on the action during scene changes.
Beautiful Thing evidences the sort of skills which have made Harvey such a popular writer on Coronation Street – I can recommend his novels too. This play can lay claim to being one of the most well crafted and thoughtful of the 1990s while, at the same time, being thoroughly entertaining. It certainly earned its anniversary revival back in 2013 and it’s great that those of us who didn’t get to see it at the time can still catch up with the experience; it’s a beautiful thing, indeed!