Review: Beautiful Thing (Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Jonathan Harvey’s celebrated 1993 play gets a welcome revival at Theatre Royal Stratford East before moving on to HOME Manchester and Leeds Playhouse.

There’s a row of three front doors on a Thamesmead housing estate in the 90s (set design Rosie Elmile). Nothing special – all identical n the face of it but with their own stamp as a home. An ordinary place on an ordinary day.

Jamie (Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran, who came into this production at short notice, meaning the press performances are late in the run) lives in the middle with mum Sandra (a lovely, wounded but strong Shvorne Marks) and her younger, flashy, boyfriend Tony (an endearing and physical Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge).

Production image for Beautiful Thing

Ste (Raphael Akuwudike) is on one side with his alcoholic father and drug-dealing brother; Leah (Scarlett Rayner) is in her own world on the other side with her mother and love of the songs of Mama Cass.

Revived through a Black queer lens, Beautiful Thing is celebrating its 30th anniversary and feels both nostalgic and relevant in Anthony Simpson-Pike’s production.

It brings back sights, sounds (Xana’s sound design is excellent), and references of the time while making the story specific to Black teenage boys. Both lead actors capture their characters perfectly in their awkwardness and affection, and Elliot Griggs’s lighting highlights each moment.

You may be familiar with the 1996 Channel 4 film which was based on the play, and in some ways Jonathan Harvey’s script remains a period piece set in an era where gay rights had quite a way to go.

Production image for Beautiful Thing

The message of love and community still comes through, as Sandra proves to be a model mum rather than the dismissive one Jamie fears to talk to. Her calling him “weird” earlier on leads to an altercation, which forces them to face their own truth.

As the two teenagers who seem so different – one sports mad, one more into The Sound of Music – navigate their changing friendship, Beautiful Thing becomes a celebration of difference and identity.

Sandra is the only parent we see in the play, the others being forever out or behind closed doors. Neglected and abused, Ste and Leah react in contrasting ways as he takes solace in school popularity, she in drugs and music.

Production image from Beautiful Thing

Leah is given a special resonance as the only white actor/character. She wears little and says a lot, obsessed with the escape and constraints of her own dream world. It’s a strong performance of a lonely girl by Rayner.

Beautiful Thing opens up the queer world, the gay psyche, in a moving and expressive way, which is particularly effective at the end, when all boundaries are down and Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” plays us out with smiles and maybe even a stray tear.

Beautiful Thing is at Stratford East until 7 Oct – tickets here. It then plays at Leeds Playhouse from 18-28 Oct – tickets here – and HOME Manchester from 31 Oct-11 Nov – tickets here.


Image credit: The Other Richard