BWW Review: BEAUTIFUL THING, Tobacco Factory Theatres
Premiering at London's Bush Theatre in 1993, and inspiring a film adaptation three years later that became a cult classic, Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing is currently playing at Bristol's Tobacco Factory Theatres.
Set on a council estate during the 1990s, it explores the relationship between Jamie Gangel and his next door neighbour Ste, as they struggle to come to terms with their sexuality and face the prejudices of society.
Beautiful Thing is especially striking because of its tone: it moves between being joyously upbeat and poignant. Mike Tweddle's direction revels in the changes of dynamic, but the trouble is these shifts happen with such speed and sudden intensity that it can feel jarring and perhaps a little disruptive to the flow of the narrative.
There are some quiet and tender moments between Jamie and Ste that feel like they don't reach their full moving potential as the humour intrudes. That being said, the second half definitely flows better in that regard, as the action and relationships become more subtle and nuanced.
Staged in the round, the whole experience feels tremendously intimate. Designer Anisha Fields makes clever use of the factory's original pillars, props take us into Jamie's bedroom and the estate courtyard, and Chris Swain's lighting is wonderfully evocative of the changes in the play's mood.
The inclusion of the Get Singing Community Choir is an inspired choice. The score is a blend of music from the Sixties and Nineties, and the 26-strong choir - performing arrangements by Thomas Johnson - link the narrative and highlight the central themes beautifully.
A cast of five bring the story to life, and do an admirable job. Ted Reilly brings a vulnerable charm and likeability to Jamie, and Phoebe Thomas as his mother Sandra is compelling as she struggles with her love for her son amidst the revelation of his sexuality and her anxieties about what it may mean for him.
Amy Leigh Hickman is the sassy neighbour Leah, and has some brilliantly funny moments, although these have a tendency to become over-the-top. Finn Hanlon as Tony is sharp and witty, but at times is in danger of becoming a deliberately exaggerated parody.
In his professional debut, Tristan Waterson shines as Ste; his depth of emotion as he struggles with his sexuality and abusive family life is remarkable. He complements Reilly beautifully, and in particular their final scene brings a lump to the throat.
Though Beautiful Thing feels somewhat like a period piece, depicting a particular sense of community of its time, there's no denying that it's still endearing and poignant 25 years on.
Photo Credit: Mark Dawson