Thirty years after it was written, Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing is once again being revived for a U.K. tour. In what has been a regular staple amongst the touring theatrical calendar worldwide since 1993, this co-production between some of the best U.K. regional theatres has arrived at HOME Manchester. Set in the 1990’s, when the play was originally written, two teenage boys (Ste and Jamie) live as neighbours on a working class South London estate. Ste and Jamie are very different people but connect through the fact both are being bullied, Ste at home with an abusive parent and Jamie at school.
Instantly recognisable as we enter the theatre is the 90’s dance music playing through a portable speaker on stage, reminding us of yesteryear. Sound designer Xana has also cleverly used this during transition from scene to scene. Harvey’s writing of the piece hasn’t aged at all regarding themes of coming out and stigma around AIDS still relevant today. Whilst abuse is spoken about and shown briefly, it isn’t the sole focus of the play which is refreshing. The relationship between the two leads, whilst enjoyable to watch it develop, feels rushed and under explored. The pair quickly go from friends, to best friends to exploring if there is possibly deeper feelings at a rapid pace.
Whilst the staging (Rosie Elnile) is vast in size, the scenes feel intimate and almost all play out with very little change visually. Director Anthony Simpson-Pike has worked wonders in this limited space that breathes life into the production. Set in front of three flats occupied by the families of Ste, Jamie and their friend, Leah this play has personality in abundance. Each character is quintessentially unique with their own distinctive take on these historic characters.
The roles of Ste and Jamie have been played in previous productions by renown actors such as Jonathan Bailey and Andrew Garfield and now it’s the turn of Raphael Akuwudike (Ste) and Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran (Jamie). Both actors have great chemistry with one another and demonstrate just how awkward teenage romance can be, especially during an uncomfortable and confusing time. Each actor portrays the age of fifteen effortlessly whilst also demonstrating a sense of maturity for their age.
Akuwudike’s character arc is a joy to watch from the initial innocence when discussing life with his friend Leah, to the sometimes troubled relationship with his mother and then his growing intimate relationship with Jamie. Owokoniran’s portrayal of Jamie, as a domestic abuse victim at the hands of his father is authentic and harrowing. Whilst not seen on stage, the violence and trauma are alluded to and later revealed that his father may have suspicions of his sexuality. Owokoniran does an impressive job of making this seem genuine and believable.
Whilst Ste and Jamie are billed as our main characters, this show is without a doubt about Shvorne Marks who plays Sandra, Jamie’s formidable mother. A caring, loveable mother who you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of with her razor sharp, quick witted tongue. The character provides the majority of the comedy throughout the piece and has some brilliant one liners. A testament to Marks’ acting prowess is how the audience are constantly laughing with a single scowl directed towards her cast members. Her performance is an unforgettable highlight.
The Beautiful Thing cast are rounded out by Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge (Sandra's love interest) and Scarlett Rayner (Ste and Jamie's friend). Blackwood-Cambridge provides a stark contrast of character as the slightly more prim and proper artist that is clearly not from the same estate. Rayner embodies the immature fifteen year old perfectly that we have all either been or known. Rayner’s Leah is a constant source of humour with the audience appreciating her characterisation of the young, Mama Cass obsessed teenager.
Unlike previous productions, this is a predominately black cast and it is overwhelmingly welcomed as it shines a light on underrepresented minorities in society and especially theatre. It’s a lost opportunity then that the script hasn’t been slightly adapted to reflect the diversity in the casting as there was only one piece of dialogue regarding Ste being questioned by his mother if he was being bullied due to his race. There could have been further exploration in what being queer and black in the 1990’s was like.
Beautiful Thing delves into what community truly means, the power of friendships and the questioning of what is love when exploring sexuality. For a piece of theatre to still be produced thirty years later and be taken to the hearts of its audience isn’t an easy task. This thirtieth anniversary tour celebrates a piece of theatre with beautiful storytelling and relationships that the audience are willing on to see develop further. Beautiful Thing is a sincere account of young queer representation.
AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review