When Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing premiered at the Bush theatre, The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner compared the experience of watching it to “driving up a motorway at 100 miles an hour”. 20 years on, an anniversary production at the Arts theatre opened this week and if preview audiences were anything to go by – Director Nikolai Foster tells me “When the two boys started to dance together, the whole audience rose and cheered.” – the urban love story, which went on to be made into a film and has been performed in dozens of subsequent productions, looks set to entrance London audiences all over again.
To mark the play’s 20th anniversary revival , we spoke to playwright Harvey and director Foster about their experiences of the play then and now, discovering a history of sudden success, panic attacks, fated casting and political change, which has brought the story back to the capital where it all began and where its relevance remains unchanged.
Jonathan Harvey, playwright
It does seem like a long time [since the first production]. As a playwright in this country – especially 20 years ago when I wrote it – I never really thought it would be put on in the first place, never mind getting a second, third, fourth production. So to have it put on 20 years later is really surreal. When the Mama Cass music starts to play I get a little bit emotional because all these memories come flooding back.
I remember the very first preview of the play at the Bush theatre in 1993. I remember really having enjoyed the rehearsal process and being pleased with what I’d written. I knew it was in good shape because I’d done quite a bit before it. But it wasn’t really until it was in front of an audience at that very first preview when they responded so warmly towards it and they were very respectful of the experience in front of them, [when] I just thought “Oh wow. We’ve managed to nail this one.”
The standard thing is Beautiful Thing got rave reviews all along. It didn’t. It came in the middle of a load of gay plays that were about Aids and HIV and here was this story which just very lightly touched on that and was about coming out, so I suppose some people felt it was old-fashioned and felt that it was a way to have a story with a happy ending and that just didn’t happen and therefore it was a fairy tale. Then we did a tour, it ended at the Donmar Warehouse and then it transferred to the West End. By then about every single review was glowing because I think they thought “Well this has stood the test of time, there must be something decent about it.”
I had Beautiful Thing on in the West End at the same time as my play Babies was on at the Royal Court and it was great because I was never short of a party! But because I went very quickly from being a secondary school teacher to having my photograph in the paper and people writing about me, I started suffering from panic attacks. I think it was about feeling like my life was a little bit out of control. I wouldn’t change anything – and I couldn’t travel on the underground for about 10 years, which is a bit of a nightmare when you live in London – but I couldn’t work out why I was having panic attacks. I think that was my body’s way of responding to it, it was a bit of a head f**k. Don’t get me wrong, teaching was a horrible job, I would much rather have the panic attacks! But I think that suddenly I was my own person and there was nobody telling me what to do. I didn’t like feeling hemmed in or being in enclosed places, which is a nightmare when you’re working in small theatres like the Bush.
It [Beautiful Thing] was political with a small ‘p’. I remember seeing the writer Sue Townsend do a talk about her writing and she said she felt writers wrote best from the sense of outrage or anger and I suppose, looking back, that’s how I wrote Beautiful Thing. I was angered and outraged about the age of consent laws and about Section 28, and this was a response to that. At the time there was a lot of debate in the House of Commons and the House of Lords about lowering the age of consent from 21 to 18 and I just watched this group of people deciding my fate, if you like, and I just thought “It’s got nothing to do with my experience of being gay, I need to tell a story that shows what being gay and working-class is really about.” It was written from a sense of outrage and that’s probably why it’s as good as it is.
We went on tour and I remember outside of London people gasping when the boys were kissing. There were protests by some Christians in Bury St Edmonds because they got very angry that the word ‘gay’ hadn’t been used on the flyer. It just said that it was a story about love, and they thought that was terrible that we were leading the youth of Bury St Edmonds astray. The great thing was because of the backlash the play sold out.
I remember coming to a point about five or six years ago and thinking “Enough is enough” and I stopped people putting it on. I felt like I wasn’t in control of it and I think there were productions going on that weren’t very good. I broke my rule about 18 months ago when I let the Royal Exchange do it in Manchester and that’s purely a vanity thing, I’ve always wanted a play at the Royal Exchange! Once that was on I remembered how much I enjoyed it. Then Tom O’Connell, the producer, approached me last year and it was in my mind that “Wouldn’t it be nice for it to go on somewhere 20 years on?”, so it made complete sense for it to go on this year.
I don’t particularly feel it’s dated. When it was on in Manchester, I think some reviewers said the only thing that’s dated about it is the audience response. When it was on 20 years ago it was seen as quite shocking in its boldness, but here was a happy-go-lucky story about two young lads falling in love and now we’re more used to seeing that. I think that the universality of it carries on.
I don’t tinker with the script now. I would with other plays, but I breathe a sigh of relief I chose Mama Casa music and I didn’t choose some sh*te like the Nolan sisters! Yes, it could do with a bit of pruning here and there because it’s a play that really likes the sound of its own voice, but I thought ‘oh sod it, it was written by a 24-year-old and you did a pretty good job considering he was a kid’; it’s like my young child wrote it so I forgive it its flaws.
Nikolai Foster, director
I think I first read Beautiful Thing when I was at secondary school, probably like a lot of people doing GCSE drama around the time the play came out. But I think my very first contact with it must have been the film, and I can’t quite remember how, when or where I saw it, but I just remember being blown away by it and this thing that, like many people, spoke to me on a very personal level and seemed to me to be something that I personally could relate to.
It’s weird because it’s one of those plays that I would happily cut off any number of limbs to direct, but Jonathan a few years ago said “No more productions, that’s it”, because I guess it loses its potency in some ways if it’s just constantly being done. Then I met the producer Tom O’Connell, we both got on very well and said it would be great to do something together. Beautiful Thing wasn’t discussed at all. Then just by chance Jonathan and Tom were having a meeting and they stumbled on the idea of doing it in its 20th anniversary year and Tom contacted me off the back of that meeting. It just feels like it all came together and the stars aligned at the right time. I suppose that’s how lots of these projects come about, it’s nothing more mysterious and certainly nothing more cynical than a few people meeting at the same time.
I’d never seen it on stage before, so it’s been great for me to be able to come with a completely unbiased view of the piece and look at it completely objectively, at what myself and the designer Colin and this remarkable group of actors can bring to it here and now rather than having any baggage of knowing what may or may not have worked in the past.
The reason for art in any democratic society is to challenge the status quo and to challenge the policies of government of the day, to try and inspire and offer new and different ways of thinking. When the play was written, Section 28 was in action and if you were a young gay person you would feel even more ostracised and alienated in state schools where you couldn’t “promote homosexuality”. Section 28 doesn’t exist today, but what strikes me as making this play extremely relevant today is that it presents a very modern contemporary view not only of a family but also this notion of a gay relationship being based just on love; it’s a very beautiful, tender love affair between two young people, it just so happens they’re both men. Even today, if you look at the ways that those kind of relationships are presented in television, normally the gay guys are all camp and silly or there is some kind of sensationalist angle. Therefore the play is more political by not being political. It’s just going “This is how it is, this is a slice of life on this estate on Thamesmead at this period of time.”
When we had the first previews, you’re sitting there with a group of 350 strangers and people are responding in very specific ways to parts of the play and you go “Wow, this really is inspiring for a lot of people, it’s life-affirming for a lot of people, it’s relevant to a lot of people, it still has a currency and it vibrates in very specific ways”, and for that reason it feels like a real privilege and an honour to be able to work on it. There’s something magical about it I think.
I feel very privileged we’re working with Jonathan. He’s been closely involved and it feels very special and very lucky to have his input, support and guidance. Obviously he’s an incredibly intelligent man, but he uses his intelligence in a very fun, unthreatening, charismatic way, so it feels like when you are being offered guidance or suggestions or how to make things better, it’s coming from a real place of love and trust and joy. He’s a theatrical animal and he loves seeing this group of people bring his play to life.
I think we [cast the show] over about three months. We were determined to find raw talent and ideally boys from the right area so it wasn’t ‘acting’, it was very real, truthful, visceral, edgy performances. We literally auditioned for days, anyone who had been submitted, anyone I’d seen on television who I thought might be interesting or have some of the defining qualities of the characters. That’s how we met Jake [Davies] who is from very close to where the play’s set, which is fantastic. Then I was rehearsing a show at Arts Ed and one of my actors in it, Danny-Boy [Hatchard], is an East London working-class lad and I thought “God, he’d be perfect”, but of course being at drama school we weren’t allowed to audition him because he was still in training. Then one night he came in to help us in auditions to read in with the other people auditioning and the minute he started reading we thought “Oh blimey. The person who should be playing this part is sitting on the wrong side of the table and we can’t have him.” We carried on auditioning and it went on and on and then the college said “Look, if you can work around Danny-Boy still doing his college stuff during the first couple of weeks of rehearsals, by the end of those couple of weeks he’ll be at a stage in his training when he’ll have done all his modules to meet his degree, can you work around that?” It was pretty challenging, but we did it and it was worth it because they’re both astonishing. He’ll be graded on his play in the West End as part of his end credit!
I’d like everybody and anybody to come and see the play because whether gay, straight or whatever it’s a play of our time and it’s about the world we live in. Without sounding cheesy or theatrical, I think it should challenge people but they should essentially come away feeling that life is better for having this play in the world, performed by this exceptional group of actors, at this moment in time.