Thursday, 25 April 2013

Theatre review: Beautiful Thing

Although Jonathan Harvey's TV writing career continues to be successful, none of his stage plays has ever matched the popularity of his debut, Beautiful Thing, which turns 20 years old this year. To mark the anniversary Harvey's lifted a self-imposed ban on revivals to allow Nikolai Foster's production which runs at the Arts prior to a limited UK tour. A piece of gay theatre groundbreaking both in the optimistic matter-of-factness with which it approaches its love story, and in the mainstream appeal it achieves, it premiered at a time when Section 28 was still in effect and AIDS remained a hot topic closely associated with the gay community. As such, it was a breath of fresh air, political in its very refusal to acknowledge politics. Harvey's script hasn't been updated, so the action still takes place in 1993 with many a pop-culture reference of the time. But the romance of two 15-year-old boys on a Thamesmead estate, and the witty characters surrounding them, ensures Beautiful Thing has kept its appeal.

Jamie (Jake Davies) is bullied at school, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of The Sound of Music and bunks off PE to hang out with expelled, Mama Cass-fixated neighbour Leah (Zaraah Abrahams.) Next door, his classmate Ste (Danny-Boy Hatchard) is popular and sporty but regularly beaten up at home by his drunken father and brother. On particularly bad nights, Ste sometimes escapes to the next-door flat to sleep top-to-toe in Jamie's bed, where their friendship starts to turn into something else.

The big-name casting for the production is TV star Suranne Jones as Jamie's fearsome single mother Sandra, capable of great tenderness and sudden viciousness in equal measure, and although she takes a while to warm into the role she's very effective in the second act. Davies and Hatchard, both from roughly the same area as the boys they're playing, look terribly young and vulnerable, which adds a real touching element to the way the two lost characters find each other - the play's famous fairytale ending works better here than I've ever seen it do before, the pair clinging to each other as if for dear life.

Foster's production is generally strongest on bringing to life the play's sweetness without making it cloying. Beneath her sass, Leah is a vulnerable character but never more so than in Abrahams' portrayal, her desperation for attention and love is to the fore here to the point that Sandra's constant insults seem particularly harsh. What this revival doesn't always nail is the comedy in Harvey's dialogue, in the first act in particular the comic timing is off a bit too often - the worst offender is Oliver Farnworth, miscast as Sandra's younger boyfriend Tony, a middle-class stoner slumming it in Thamesmead. Unlike the others, he doesn't feel like a believable character, and I got the uncomfortable feeling that I was watching a dodgy impression of Ben Daniels' performance in the 1996 film version.

But as that film version proved, the story is strong enough to withstand the odd misfiring performance, and while this particular Beautiful Thing doesn't fire on all the cylinders it could have, it does feature the most believable and touching rendition of the central romance that I've seen so far.

Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey is booking until the 25th of May at the Arts Theatre; then touring to Liverpool, Leeds and Brighton.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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