It has been 20 years since Beautiful Thing was a new play. Decades have passed, Prime Ministers have come and gone, laws have changed and barriers have been broken down. Yet Jonathan Harvey’s play, which manages to be both sweet and caustically funny, feels entirely of the now bar a few fleeting mentions of Richard And Judy and Erasure.
That a family’s reaction to suspecting a son and brother is gay could still be so brutal as portrayed in this play, first performed in 1993, is a sad reflection on today, but that this tale of young love, coming of age, fear and discovery feels so timeless speaks testaments for Harvey’s writing, Nikolai Foster’s direction and the strong ensemble cast’s performance.
The piece, which in previous incarnations starred the emerging talents of now big screen stars Jonny Lee Miller and Andrew Garfield, tells a simple enough story of 16-year-olds Jamie and Ste, neighbours in a South London block of flats, who, one hot summer, discover love and sexuality together. Though Jamie is a secret Sound Of Music fan who hates sport, Ste is a football star whose drunkard father speaks with his fists. An escape from such abuse finds Ste staying in his friend’s bedroom and one thing leads to another.
Could Jake Davies (Jamie) and Danny-Boy Hatchard (Ste) follow in the Hollywood-bound footsteps of Miller and Garfield? Quite possibly. Davies bristles with teenage energy and bubbles with confrontational emotion in the face of his combative mother, while Hatchard, who is still to complete his training at Arts Educational and makes his professional debut in this production, brings a touchingly sweet gentility and innocence to Ste.
Suranne Jones, who with series like Scott And Bailey is fast making herself one of our foremost television actresses, proves she can do it on stage too, taking gobby to a whole new level as Ste’s rough diamond mum, her soft, caring eyes occasionally betraying her hard exterior. Zaraah Abrahams matches her in the mouthy stakes and ups the rebellious anger as the third wheel of the childhood friendship, while Oliver Farnworth is every inch the try-hard, ‘I’m your friend not your Dad’, out of work artist, making audiences cringe and feel for him simultaneously.
There are buckets of laughs in Harvey’s script from the most barbed of retorts to inventive explanations of Mama Cass’ death, which, enjoyable as they are for their own sake, perfectly accentuate the moments of quiet stillness; an aching reach of a finger tip or the simple bold assertion that “Some things are hard to say”.
Hard to say, they may be, but Harvey, Foster and his team bring just those things to the stage beautifully. I suspect if we were to see this production again in another 20 years, it would still feel relevant. A beautiful piece beautifully staged.