Review: BEAUTIFUL THING, Stratford East

Jonathan Harvey's tender coming-of-age queer romance set against the threat of domestic violence receives a delightful revival on its 30th anniversary.

By: Sep. 25, 2023
Review: BEAUTIFUL THING, Stratford East

Review: BEAUTIFUL THING, Stratford East

On a council estate in South London, Jamie and Ste share more than just paper-thin walls. Both bullied in different ways and suffering from the pains of growing up, they bond on their stoop while their other neighbour Leah and Jamie’s mum’s list of lovers pepper their days. When, one night, it all gets too much for Ste, he hides out at Jamie’s from his father and brother’s implacable violence.

Between a jab at Jamie’s revulsion for sports day and another at Ste’s ignorance of musical theatre, something blossoms in the refuge of Sandra’s home. Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, which premiered three decades ago at the other end of London, receives a lovely new revival in Stratford under Anthony Simpson-Pike’s direction.

It’s a tender coming-of-age queer romance set against the threat of domestic violence. Harvey builds the characters up with seemingly inconsequential banter that solidifies their personalities and beautifully distinguishes each of them. Sarcastic humour and ruthless comebacks are a playground for actors Raphael Akuwudike and Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran (Ste and Jamie). They battle with their feelings and try not to be too extreme while taking weird pleasure in antagonising the adults in their lives.

The production is cute, sad, and fluffy in all the right places, but it has a tendency to lean into the comedic side of the text a tad too much for the gravity of certain aspects to hit. The topic of absent or violent fathers is addressed almost indirectly and without any resolution. Sandra’s ambition is nearly portrayed as a negative trait in the mother, and Leah’s overdose is left up in the air. The piece doesn’t tackle many of its core themes head-on and Jamie, rather misogynistically, keeps going at his mother’s propensity for short-term relationships. This said, it’s a lighthearted take on coming out to oneself and others.

Shvorne Marks gives a standout comic performance as Sandra. She’s genuinely funny as she constantly (and quite problematically) tears Leah down to shreds, but the slut-shaming of the young girl is relentless. That’s probably the most evident overt sign that it’s a play of its time. Scarlett Rayner is an enjoyable firecracker as she introduces a tough teenager who conceals her sadness and trauma behind a foul mouth and a profound love for Mama Cass’s music. Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge completes the cast as Tony, Sandra’s younger, suave boyfriend with a heart of gold. He is a constant comedy relief with proud innuendos and a tongue-in-cheek attitude to life.

The show is generally delightful, but one can’t shake the feeling that there’s so much more to explore. Simpson-Pike crafts a beautiful revival that ends with an adorable moment that ties the community together, but the script seems to forget the main reason the two boys connected in the first place. There could be a deeper exploration of class, homophobia, and the horrors of domestic violence that’s unfortunately discarded for the benefit of a laugh. Designer Rosie Elnile’s set with its stark grey run-down walls is almost the only reminder of their background. We perhaps look for more these days

Beautiful Thing runs at Stratford East until 7 October.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

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