Review by Sam Waite
Premiering at the Bush Theatre in the early 90’s, and adapted for the screen shortly after, Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing was a landmark story of coming out and coming to terms with one’s own self. Anthony Simpson-Pike’s production, now playing at Theatre Royal Stratford East, celebrates not only the play’s 30th anniversary, but its continually important message.
Set mostly on the landing outside a trio of council flats in South London. Numbers 11, 12, and 13 are home to the families of Leah, Jamie, and Ste – three teenagers struggling in their own ways. Football-averse Jamie has been bunking off from his PE lessons, problem child Leah has been expelled from their school, and sports-mad Ste faces regular verbal and physical abuse from both his drunken father and his dodgy older brother. Jamie’s mum, strong-willed and sharp-tongued Sandra, has plenty of time and affection for Ste, and her new, younger boyfriend just wants to set aside his clear middle-classness and get on with the wayward group.
The scene is set before the actors take the stage, with Xana’s sound design bringing to life the sounds of a bustling estate – sirens and engines will be heard, along with muffled shouting matches through the paper-thin walls of the flats. Lighting from Elliot Griggs tells us it’s still too early in the afternoon for Jamie and Leah to be sat chatting on their doorsteps, and continues to effectively keep the days flowing in what is largely a slice-of-life affair. The set itself, designed by Rosie Elnile, is immediately recognisable as a working class estate – the three doors are built into a shabby façade, and the flowers Sandra decorates number 12’s with don’t do much to hide the less-than-ideal lifestyles of the neighbours.
As the only adults we see, Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge and Shvorne Marks give their all to would-be hippie Tony and overworked barmaid Sandra. The pair have a delightful and flirtatious chemistry, and manage to get a lot of big laughs with her cutting jokes and his complete lack of self-awareness. Scarlett Rayner gets her share of the laughs as Leah, full of bravado clearly meant to conceal her anxiety at finding a new school and effectively having to raise herself. Rayner also brings a genuine sense of whimsy and recapturing of childhood to Leah’s obsession with Mama Cass, perhaps as an aspirational figure or maybe even an imagine surrogate for her absent mother.
Harvey’s script has aged nicely, now a period piece but with the themes and even the specific events still realistic and relevant to today’s world. In this production, the cast is almost entirely black, with Leah as the sole white character – an inversion of the casting for the 1996 film, as well as many theatrical productions. This change not only adds a new layer to the underlying fear of prejudice as Jamie and Ste realise their feelings for one another, but makes their fears feel more rooted in reality for a modern audience, with concerns around familial reactions increased without a word of the text needing to be changed. It helps further with our immersion that Harvey so correctly captured the speech of South London teens, and that little seems to have changed in that regard in the decade since.
Dialect coaching from Joel Trill must be highlighted, as the cast perform with strong, distinctly “common” accents without giving into a caricature of council estate life, keeping warmth and humanity as their bickering makes them sound ever harsher. As a foil to this, Tony’s competing poshness sticks out life a sore thumb, really helping to nail the comedic tone of the character, who is trying and miserably failing to put his higher class aside. Also strong is the work of movement and intimacy director Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster, who helps bring a real sense of exploration and realisation to Ste and Jamie’s relationship, and whose brief movement pieces provide entertaining and kinetic transitions from one day to the next.
Of course, the real marker of whether Beautiful Thing succeeds in this new staging is the work of the two leading men. Thankfully, both are immaculately portrayed, with Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran stepping in as Jamie with minimal preparation after personal matters side-lined Joshua Asaré – he blends so well into the dynamic of this makeshift family that you’d never know he hadn’t been cast from the start. Alongside his delicate, yearning portrayal of a young man so aware of who he is but so afraid to declare it, there is Raphael Akuwudike’s Ste. Ste is so believable a teenage boy, so deeply-felt in his want to be who he’s supposed to be, and to be accepted, because of how fully Akuwudike commits himself to the role.
The actors, particularly this young couple, have a rich, textured intimacy to their chemistry, making it easy to believe these years-long relationships. Director Anthony Simpson-Pike has helped to shape such bold, exciting performances that it took me almost the entire first act to realise the play’s sedate, slice of life qualities. Indeed, for as little time as truly passes and as few events of real significance occur, the plot never feels like it’s stagnant, or the relationships like they aren’t developing. When Jamie and Ste have their first kiss, it feels earned and longed for, even though we’ve been in the world of these characters for only a couple of days.
Accompanied, thanks to Leah’s fascination, by a soundtrack of Mama Cass and The Mamas and The Papas songs, this anniversary production of Beautiful Thing proves beyond any doubt why the play is regarded as such a modern classic. With stellar performances across the board and a real, lived-in quality to not only the relationships but to the world around them, this play truly is beautiful, and as resonant as it has ever been.
Beautiful Thing plays at Theatre Royal Stratford East until October 7th.
For tickets and information visit https://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-shows/beautiful-thing
Photos by The Other Richard