“God, coz I bunk off games does it mean I’m gay?”
Jonathan Harvey’s 1993 play Beautiful Thing caused something of a furore when it first opened at the Bush Theatre and watching it now, it is hard to imagine that this sweetly romantic tale of an emerging teenage gay relationship could have managed that. But 18 years is a long time, especially when it comes to attitudes towards homosexuality, culturally this was a pre-Queer as Folk time but more significantly the age of consent for gay men was still 21 (though it was being debated at the time). So despite its unassuming nature, it could well be argued that this play does occupy a landmark place in the development of gay drama.
The play presents three young people, Jamie, Ste and Leah, who are all struggling to ‘fit in’ with their family, their friends, their peers and the world at large. Even the adult characters have their own struggles on this Thamesmead housing estate as poverty looms large but even in these unlikeliest of circumstances, an unexpected flame flickers between Jamie and Ste which is slowly nurtured into something rather beautiful in Sarah Frankcom’s production for the Royal Exchange.
Harvey’s writing comes from a fresh and undoubtedly genuine place, there’s a clear authenticity to much of the story and even though it is only the 90s, still manages to come across as something of a period piece with cultural references and musical pointers leaving us in no doubt when we are. And Liz Ashcroft’s design makes clever use of the in-the-round theatre to create an evocative globe-topped space which suggests the tower block location rather than attempting to represent it accurately.
But even where the writing might feel a little rooted in the near past, it is in the performances that the timelessness of the piece shines through. Matthew Tennyson as the slightly geeky Jamie and Tommy Vine as the sporty Ste are just adorable in portraying the fumbling journey from friendship to something deeper, their’s is a relationship that one simply cannot help but root for. Clare-Louise Cordwell continues her excellent work from the National Theatre’s Double Feature plays as Jamie’s brash mother, subtly revealing the vulnerabilities behind her brittle veneer and Tara Hodge is also great fun as perky neighbour and schoolfriend Leah with a Mama Cass obsession which becomes highly amusing.
This Beautiful Thing really does emerges as just that, delicate and subtle, clever and funny and incredibly moving. The final coup de théâtre which has been incorporated into this production thus feels a little extraneous, a little over-emphatic in its ramming home of a message that doesn’t really need it, despite it being a lovely moment with the best of intentions. Well worth the trip to Manchester.