It’s hard to believe that it is 20 years since Jonathan Harvey’s “Urban Fairytale” first came to life at London’s Bush Theatre. It is probably through the film that followed 3 years later that most people have become familiar with the work but, whilst the film has become a classic, the stage version from which it grew has more power to touch audiences.
I have seen different stagings over the years, but this 20th anniversary production directed by Nikolai Foster strikes just the right pitch in revisiting the work for both new audiences and those who already love it.
Both Beautiful Thing and Harvey’s “Canary” (premiered at the Liverpool Playhouse in 2010) are very dependent on the period being established so that the treatment of the characters has place and meaning. This is why any attempt to update the references to contemporary events and people would be inappropriate. Mentions of Bill Beaumont on Question of Sport and “that bloke from Erasure” do not date the play as some have suggested; they set it in its context. Good writing does not date – it ages – and Beautiful Thing has aged very well indeed.
Whilst this is very much a gay-themed play, the miracle of it is that what we see is primarily a love story between two teenagers who are coming to terms with themselves and how they fit into the world around them. It is the fact that there is no foot stamping, banner waving feel to it that really set it apart 20 years ago, and continues to do so now. The two lovers are both teenage boys but their feelings, uncertainties, fears and search for happiness are just the same as everyone else’s.
When it was written, Beautiful Thing broke boundaries by standing up as a play that asserts its equality by being a positive, happy story about growing up gay, at a time when gay theatre and film was almost exclusively either campaigning or tragic. It found its place by making us laugh, cry and leave the theatre smiling, and it still has the same capacity today.
Colin Richmond’s atmospheric design was conceived after research trips to what remains of the Thamesmead housing estate where the play is set. A balcony outside the doors to three flats is lit by numerous bulkhead light fittings and a deft piece of theatrical sleight of hand transforms it into the interior of Jamie’s bedroom and back without interrupting the flow. At one point we are tricked into seeing both interior and exterior simultaneously. As the play opens, David Plater’s lighting and some haze effects create the atmosphere of a steamy hot summer afternoon - remember those?
On the balcony we meet Jamie (Jake Davies) bunking off school from games and Leah (Zaraah Abrahams) the girl next door, who is excluded from school, looking at a rainbow. Leah’s obsession with Mama Cass provides us with most of the soundtrack, including the opening music.
They are joined by Jamie’s single mother, Sandra (Suranne Jones) and then the other neighbour Ste (Danny-Boy Hatchard) and the cast is completed by the arrival of Oliver Farnworth as Tony, the rather spaced-out artist boyfriend to Sandra.
The abusive relationship that Ste has with his father and brother (only heard as offstage voices) means that he occasionally escapes to stop over with Jamie and it is on one such night that their top-to-tail sleeping arrangement provides the opportunity for the pair to discover their feelings for each other.
Ste’s family life is a disaster, Leah hates her mother and Sandra’s affair with Tony is burning itself out as fast as the spliffs he smokes. The only relationship that actually seems to have any genuine love in it is that between Jamie and Ste and the cast all agreed, in their post show discussion on Wednesday evening, that they are probably still together today.
The real highlights of this production lie in the chemistry between Suranne Jones and her onstage son Jake Davies, and that between Jake and Danny-Boy Hatchard. In a world where we expect everything at breakneck pace, Nikolai Foster has encouraged his cast, especially Jamie and Ste, to have the courage to play some scenes with a beautifully measured stillness and delicacy of touch. Some of the dialogue between them superbly revealed their fear and awkwardness fighting with their longing for affection. When your best mate is “one of the lads” and adored by everyone in the school, how does a wimp who hates football but knows all about Cagney and Lacey and the Sound of Music find the strength to dare, and to explain how he feels. With the help of a salad, a copy of “Hello” and a bottle of Body Shop Peppermint Foot Lotion of course...
There are passages of astonishing tenderness from these two remarkable young actors - a hand reaching out, longing to touch - a head resting gently and silently on a friend’s bruised back – a stolen kiss when saying goodnight and the simplest of words that lead to an embrace. There is nothing graphic about any of these scenes, just an aching honesty and gentleness that is genuinely a beautiful thing. Just in case anyone was worried about being a little red round the eyes going to the bar in the interval, one of Harvey’s crack-shot touches of humour closes the first act with the sound of music, and we have to forget for the moment that Jamie is supposed to be fifteen, going-on sixteen.
“Some things are hard to say”, Jamie tells us, and that is certainly true even today. What we need to recall is that, when this play was set, two teenagers in a same-sex relationship was a much bigger deal than it is now. In a backlash against the gay community following the AIDS crisis, it had seemed as though a lot of the advances made in the general acceptance of gay people had been lost. It took courage to be open with friends, but usually a lot more to be open with family, and Jamie’s horror that his mother had discovered that he’d been to a gay bar is easy to understand. Suranne Jones gives a superb performance as Sandra, but it is in this coming-out scene especially that stamps a seal of excellence on it. She is fighting with her emotions as much as Jamie is with his own, but at the end of the day all she wants is the best for her son. As I type the words “He’s good to me” I can feel again the emotion at that point in the story, where Jamie gives the ultimate justification of the relationship he has with Ste.
In the closing scene, as the music soars and the lights fade we don’t want it to end – we want to know what happens next. Some people want a sequel, but maybe we are better off making our own minds up. I for one like the idea that this cast have, in believing that this is a relationship made to last.
Tony gets dumped by Sandra along with the garbage, which is a shame, as Oliver Farnworth’s portrayal is lovable. He may be on his own planet but he has a heart of gold and although he might say the wrong things all the time he means well. Zaraah Abrahams is marvellous as the difficult teenager who is a mystery even to herself at times.
Jake Davies and Danny Boy Hatchard are fearless in their performances. Davies has wit and enthusiasm to temper his uncertainty while Hatchard gives a great portrayal of a lad whose body has grown up too fast for him and is desperately trying to grow into it – confident in a gawky, awkward way, but able to turn to softness when the moment calls for it. How could Jamie have failed to fall for him?
This gentle, funny, bittersweet reading is most certainly a Beautiful Thing. It has been playing to almost sold-out houses at the Liverpool Playhouse, where it closes on Saturday evening. It will transfer to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds from 3rd to 8th June and then to the Theatre Royal Brighton from 10th to 15th June.
For details, go to www.beautthing.com