Celebrating its 25th Anniversary, Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, currently playing in the Loft at Chapel off Chapel, is surprisingly as relevant today as when it first debuted.
Not only is it a love story between two teenage boys coming to terms with their sexuality, but it’s a story about relationships; the relationships we have with each other, with our parents, our friends and our surroundings.
Set on a council estate in an area of high unemployment in South East London, the story focuses on the turbulent lives of a group of neighbours. Jamie who lives with his single mum, Sandra, is sensitive and bullied at school, resulting in him skipping school sports. Sandra, is loud, brash and works long hours in the local pub. When home, she keeps up her publican banter, verbally duelling with those around her.
Next door on one side lives Leah, who has been expelled from school and spends her days listening to Mama Cass and dreaming of escaping the concrete jungle in which they live. The neighbour on the other side is, Ste, an athletic teenage boy, whose home life is filled with tension and fear because of domestic violence, which sees him take refuge in Sandra’s flat, sharing not only a room, but sleeping top to toe in a single bed with Jamie.
In their world filled with turmoil, Jamie and Ste’s relationship becomes a beautiful thing. The show is directed by Cal Robinson-Taylor and features Sean Minahan and James Malcher, who as individuals, portray the troubled teenagers well, but lack some chemistry in their scenes together, preventing the audience feeling the angst and awkwardness of first love. A couple of scenes between Jamie and Ste felt a little rushed, particularly one where Ste tries to fall asleep, but Jamie is keen to stay awake and talk. Perhaps a longer run of the show would allow them to relax into the roles and allow the dialogue to flow more naturally, allowing the silence to speak more than the words.
Melina Wylie is superb as Sandra and is the glue that holds the cast together. Ruby Wall, as Leah, makes us love her, eccentricities and all, and Raphael Lecat portrays awkwardness very easily, almost channelling Hugh Grant in parts.
What’s nice about watching the play in 2018 is that Harvey’s original intent of ‘a play that happened to have gay characters’, is now realised, as opposed to being ‘a gay play’. What’s more striking today is the prevalence of domestic abuse in the home as opposed to 1993 audience reactions to an on-stage kiss between teenage boys, but then we have to remember that the age of consent for gay men back then was 21 and the world was frightened by the rate of AIDS related deaths.
However, while society’s attitudes may have changed, albeit slowly, the struggle of growing-up, first love and coming out is still a challenge and still relevant today.
It’s always good to hear the upbeat music of Mama Cass and the choice of songs from the late 60s/early 70s peppered throughout the show gives inspiration and timeless hope to everyone listening.
While some of the 1980s UK cultural references may have been lost on the Australian audience, Beautiful Thing is still endearing, funny and significant.
Showing at Chapel off Chapel from 6 June 2018 – 10 June 2018