With its tender optimism, 20 years since its debut, Jonathan Harvey‘s Beautiful Thing offers a chance for reflection, both positive and poignant on the story of same sex love in the present day.
In 1993, when Beautiful Thing was first performed at the Bush Theatre in West London, audiences were left shocked, gasping at an on-stage gay kiss between teenage boys. Sitting in the Arts Theatre in 2013, predominantly surrounded by other gay male couples, we are assuredly in a different time. The male age of consent no longer stands at 21, Section 28 has been abolished and soon the right to marry will almost certainly be open to myself and the rest of the LGBT community in England and Wales.
I differed from much of the audience, in that unlike most of those around me, for whom Beautiful Thing has rightfully become a nostalgic cult classic, I had never seen the play or the film before, so the experience was completely fresh. I was just four when the play opened in 1993, and just seven when the critically acclaimed film adaptation premiered.
Harvey introduces us to Jamie and Ste, teenage boys living next door to one another on a Thamesmead council estate. Sandra, single mum to Jamie, offers a caring refuge for Ste, whose alcoholic father and brothers are often violent. The two friends, one a lover of Cagney and Lacey, the other a school sports ace, become closer with a touching romance blossoming. As will be memorable to many with their first experiences of love, the relationship both captivates and scares them, only added to by the terrifying prospect of coming out to friends and family. That fear, for two boys in love, must have been so much more consuming twenty years ago, when their relationship, if sexual, could have landed them in prison due to their age.
Harvey himself has described this work as “a bit of a museum piece”, but in my eyes, the play still feels highly relevant. Coming out sadly remains a terrifyingly difficult experience for far too many young people, with attitudes towards homosexuality not changing as much as many (particularly in central London) would like to think. The story is loved by so many as they first saw it during a time when they themselves were dealing with their own sexuality and were comforted by this story; learning that they were not alone and that in the case of Jamie, at least, his mother didn’t reject him.
Affirmative messages about same-sex love are still needed by young people today just as much as twenty years ago. Positive and uplifting works such as Beautiful Thing therefore deserve to be seen time and time again.
This revival of the play in itself is strong, with solid performances throughout. The blossoming romance between Jamie and Ste is portrayed sweetly and convincingly by Jake Davies and Danny-Boy Hatchard, in his professional debut. Jamie’s mother Sandra, played by former Coronation Street star Suranne Jones, shines, with a touch of the soap opera helping her to receive many laughs from the audience.
Meanwhile Mama Cass obsessed Leah, played by the vocally talented Zaraah Abraham’s offers an interesting side story of her own as a fellow outsider, who since being excluded from school, has no avenue to channel her considerable talents through.
Finally Sandra’s embarrassingly middle class boyfriend Tony, here played by Oliver Farnworth
also stands as an outsider on a council estate. Although providing some extra laughs in an extended scene in his underwear, his was the only performance that occasionally fell slightly flat.
The production overall has been wonderfully brought together under the direction of Nikolai Foster and I was left feeling lucky that this had been my introduction to a story loved by so many.
At its core Beautiful Thing is a play about optimism, of love conquering all and the positive benefits of strong family and community. The kind of acceptance seen between Jamie, his mother and friends such as Leah is an example of how coming out should be for everyone. Change in attitudes takes time, much longer than it does to change Government policy and on leaving the theatre I was initially hit by a sense of depression that in 20 years since Beautiful Thing was first performed, equality has yet to be achieved. In reality though, the pace of change is ever increasing, something we have strong organisations and community leaders to thank for. My lasting feeling is therefore one of hope, that in another 20 years this play truly will be consigned to being a genuine ‘museum piece’, with the process of falling in love, regardless of gender, being a beautiful thing for everyone.
Beautiful Thing is playing at the Arts Theatre, London until 25th May 2013. It is then on tour in Liverpool, Leeds and Brighton.
Disclosure: Although Beautiful Thing is currently being advertised on the PinkNews.co.uk website, this review has been written by our editorial team independently of the advertising campaign.