Touring – reviewed at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol
Twenty-five years after Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing premiered at the Bush Theatre, it’s clear that its writing still offers hope and enlightenment alongside a cracking yarn. Under the careful direction of TF artistic director Mike Tweddle, it also reveals itself to still be a beautifully realised coming of age and discovering of sexuality tale.
Society has changed a lot in the past 25 years but still –shamefully – Beautiful Thing feels very much alone in its depiction of its central gay love story. For all the great queer plays, from Angels In America, Bent and The Normal Heart, right up to The Inheritance, very few pieces chart the falling in love of two characters with the simplicity, the warmth and the eventual acceptance that Harvey’s piece charts. It’s a reminder that theatre doesn’t always have to depict the extraordinary, sometimes it is in the simplest of stories that end up feeling extraordinary even if it is just down to their scarcity upon the stage.
Tweddle’s production floods the stage with colour; gone are the usual grey depictions of council estates, and in are florals and a growing light of hope. You can feel the love Harvey has for the oft-maligned society in which he writes, whereas many kitchen sink dramas enjoy wallowing in the milieu of a community being trapped by the circumstances around them, here Harvey provides the characters opportunity to chase their dreams. Sandra may at first appear to be a stereotypical council estate single mum, gabby and spreading for any available single man, but she has discovered her calling running pubs and is happy to call out bad behaviour and call time on what’s not working for her. Phoebe Thomas is terrific in the role, a fiery redhead bestriding the space, the de-facto Highness of the Thamesmead estate.
As Jamie and Ste, the two boys gradually discovering their love for each other, Ted Reilly and Tristan Waterston are terrific; mischievous twinkles in their eyes turning into fear, excitement and possibility as new sensations flood them. Reilly is a terrific protagonist, with an open and relatable energy, along with cherubic clean-cut looks that allows an audience to fall for him. Waterston, in his stage debut, tackles well, the popular, sporty boy, terrified of his violent bullying Dad finding out his secret. Meanwhile, in another stage debut, Amy-Leigh Hickman is a riot of teenage attitude and Cass Elliot recordings.
If the production’s colour sometimes drowns out the more intimate moments which need more specificity, it’s the Get Singing choir that provides the productions chief highlight. Drawn from the local community to sing a selection of pop songs from the 60’s and early 90’s, they provide a constant life source and sense of community to the piece, turning the intimate love story Harvey concocted, into something epic and provide beautifully rendered versions of songs from Nirvana and Ella Fitzgerald. Theatres are constantly debating how to get people through the door and there seems to be one solution staring them all in the face. Everyone singing their heart out for their local theatre cheered on by friends and loved ones. A close friend of mine was a part of this choir, so I’ve been following its progress from afar since its inception, and the way her eyes light up when discussing the work is the proof in the pudding that it’s a scheme that works and enriches the participants as much as it enriches the shows. It’s a policy TF Theatres already had put in place with their community group of actors for A View For The Bridge and I suspect one that will remain in place moving forward.
Tweddle discusses in the programme note how this is a play that altered his life when he played Jamie in Birmingham as a teenager. That deep connection to the piece comes across in a work that is all at once celebratory and tinged with love, both the burgeoning kind and of its community. Twenty-five years on, this Beautiful Thing still blazes a trail.