For its 30th-anniversary Jonathan Harvey’s seminal coming-out play Beautiful Thing receives a refreshing reframe.
Beautiful Thing was first performed at the Bush Theatre in 1993 before transferring to the West End. This was followed by a film adaptation in 1996 directed by Hettie Macdonald. Over the years the play has become something of an LGBTQ+ rite-of-passage.
This new production which is still set in 1993, revolves around two teenage boys who live in adjacent flats set on South East London’s Thamesmead estate. Jamie, loves The Sound of Music, hates sports and often misses school to avoid bullies, while Ste, the local school sports star, prefers to stay at school to avoid his abusive alcoholic father.
After another drunken night, Ste’s dad beats him again, and Jamie’s mum invites him to stay the night. Although the young men are very different, they begin a relationship after sharing Jamie’s single bed. With the help of Leah their Mama Cass obsessed teenage neighbour, and Jamie’s feisty mother Sandra, they begin to come to terms with their sexuality,
Jonathan Harvey was working as a teacher in Thamesmead when Beautiful Thing was written. Section 28, which made it illegal to promote homosexuality in schools, was still in full force, the age of consent for gay sex in the UK was 21 (as opposed to 16 for heterosexual couples) and there was a moral panic around HIV-Aids.
Harvey decided to write Beautiful Thing, partly as a riposte to all the reductive and dehumanising narratives that were being presented around gay men at the time.
Recognising that Black queer people were not written into gay stories in the 90s, director Anthony Simpson-Pike wanted his new production of Beautiful Thing, to be retold through a ‘Black Queer lens’. Author Harvey fully supports this more inclusive approach to his work.
For the most part Simpson-Pike’s production works. It is not however without its problems. There are occasional energy dips and pacing issues throughout the evening.
Raphael Akuwudike gives a lovely, well grounded, authentic performance as the laddish Ste, and is well matched with Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran as Jamie, who despite every so often being vocally a bit weak, delivers an emotionally layered performance.
Shvorne Marks is a theatrical firework as the feisty Sandra, and Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge oozes charisma slinking across the stage cat-like as smooth new boyfriend Tony. Scarlett Rayner’s Leah effectively taps into the vulnerable side of the provocative character.
Beautiful Thing continues to be relevant because is a well-written, heart-warming and timeless love story. Part of Beautiful Thing’s on-going success is due to its optimism. It is refreshing to see a queer narrative that has a happy ending.
LGBTQ+ audiences have been waiting for their very own beautiful thing to come along for quite a while.