It’s hard to believe how much has changed socially and sexually in the 20 years since Jonathan Harvey’s play Beautiful Thing first appeared on stage – and perhaps disappointing to realise even so that the piece still has relevance and resonance today.
This is a gentle and simple story set on a Thamesmead housing estate about forbidden love finding expression, the horrors of domestic violence, the hopes and dreams of over the rainbow ambition, the strength of community, and the sadness of being treated as an outsider.
Over the years the play has proved popular (and it also scored a success as a film) and there is much about it that is positive without the need to dredge too much into the pit of depression. Director Nikolai Foster’s revival is good enough and certainly fulfils his desire to make the story an “urban fairytale” rather than a museum piece.
It’s the play itself which has always seemed a shade uneven: all the characters have charm and the scenes are touching, yet it lacks an edge and there is a feeling that we haven’t truly gotten to know the characters in any real depth even as here where there are quality actors playing the roles.
The wonderful Suranne Jones plays single mum Sandra whose son is beginning to explore his sexuality and who has made her way through a succession of lovers in the absence of a husband, yet it’s hard to grasp whether she is embittered by circumstance, supportive of anyone whose aspirations might be realised, or just a loud-mouthed tart with a heart. However, the second act scene between mother and son is touching and beautifully played.
As the teenage boys whose blossoming romance forms a crucial part of the drama, Jake Davies as Jamie takes time to warm into his role (though understandably his character is more comfortable when he can truly be himself), while there is an accomplished portrayal of the tougher Ste – who is regularly beaten by an alcoholic father – by Danny-Boy Hatchard, making his professional debut and definitely someone to watch out for in future.
Zaraah Abrahams seems awkward as teenage neighbour Leah, obsessed with Mama Cass – an odd role model , while best of the bunch is Oliver Farnworth as Sandra’s kind-hearted but slightly embarrassing middle class neo-hippy boyfriend Tony, who seems the most responsive and accepting of the lot, yet is dismissed for no good reason.
And so, love conquers all with the help of a supportive community. Perhaps it’s nice to leave out the direct misery and violence and maybe it’s good to be so optimistic, but it remains hard to see why this play is still regarded as one that has broken down quite so many boundaries.