Life has moved on a great deal since the play ‘Beautiful Thing’ was premiered in 1993. When Jonathan Harvey wrote it, our gay community was reeling in the wake of the emergence of Aids. People were dying. The ill-informed public backlash was piling insult onto injury and fresh legislation denied teachers the opportunity to discuss homosexuality with their pupils.
25 years later, the status of same-sex relationships in society has improved enormously, but still a cold shiver seemed to go round the New Vic audience as they watched two men kissing in bed at close quarters. So, this revival is still pertinent.
What Harvey did so well was to create a beautiful, innocent relationship in an ugly, urban world.
Life on a Bermondsey Council Estate is tough. The blasphemous neighbours drink too much and beat their kids. The girl next door has striven to get herself excluded from school. A teenager’s lot is not a happy one. Escapes must be found.
Amy-Leigh Hickman is full of vitality as Leah (pictured) who eschews the music of Madonna (‘a slag’ – apparently) in favour of her latest discovery, Mamma Cass. She’s a gob-shite wanna-be with more venom than a scorpion. Her 15-year-old mates include Jamie and Ste.
Ste is into football, but James isn’t. He wants to pass his exams and better himself…which marks him out at school as a bit of a ‘poof’. In a sensitively restrained series of dialogues, their friendship gently deepens. Beaten by his dad, Ste stays at Jamie’s house. Jamie tends his wounds … and a kiss ensues. It’s a beautiful moment in an otherwise brash, but funny, play.
Tristan Waterson is making his stage debut as Ste and is impressively natural. His passive approach to the part presents us with a classic, confused and abused teenager, searching for something to latch on. It is Ted Reilly’s Jamie who drives the relationship – and the play – with a mature vision of who he is and what he wants to be. He knows he’s gay and is prepared to put up with the prejudice.
The (so-called) grown-ups are great too. Pheobe Thomas is fabulous as Jamie’s sassy bar-maid mum, Sandra; oscillating between loving and hating the men in her life. Which gives Finn Hanlon plenty of scope to play Tony, her super-pretentious toy boy; a fey, wafting, unreconstructed hippie – complete with spliff. It’s a fine study in ineffectualness – and it’s quite a relief when Sandra finally sees what we see – and dumps him; which enables the other four to go off together to the latest thing in London – a gay bar.
The writing is faultlessly authentic to both the period and the ages and persuasions of the characters. The teenage dialogue is spot on. Leah boasts about her show-biz future and the boys compare their acne; whilst Jamie and Tony naughtily swap notes on Sandra’s sexual history. The base-but-witty chit chat cleverly polishes a window on the times and the frustrations of those living at the lower end of the economic spectrum.
I’m normally very impressed by the community contributions to plays at the New Vic, but the visiting Tobacco Factory production team have badly let down their volunteer choir. The singers are clearly doing their best with their adventurous pop repertoire, but they are seriously under-directed and in desperate need of a conductor.
This is an entertaining play which doesn’t quite have the clout it did when it was written; when the gay cause was raw. But the echoes of the pain felt then, still hurt now – and it’s good to see the show on stage.
Visit www.newvictheatre.org.uk for bookings & more information about New Vic Theatre
Photo : Mark Dawson