BRISTOL & TOURING
TOBACCO FACTORY THEATRES – TILL 27 October
BEAUTIFUL THING by Jonathan Harvey
RUNNING TIME 2 hours 15 minutes – 1 interval
Tobacco Factory Theatres Box Office – 0117 9020344
Cormac Richards – 16 October 2018
Subtitled ‘An Urban Fairytale’, ‘Beautiful Thing’ tells the story of two teenage boys discovering their sexuality. First performed in 1993, the age of consent for legal sexual acts between two men was not lowered to 16 until 2001, thus this tale of a gay 16 and 15 year old was something of a risk. Now celebrating its 25th Anniversary, The Tobacco Factory Theatres brings us a new production of Jonathan Harvey’s play.
By today’s standards you would be forgiven for thinking it is all very tame. There is nothing salacious. No nudity, no sex – unless you include a quick peck on the lips. However, what you do get is a lovely story beautifully told. There is no attempt to update the location or the time (quite rightly), so we are still on the housing estate of Thamesmead in South East London in the early 1990s. To the younger members of the audience, many of the cultural and political references will be a mystery, but to those who remember the era it will bring back some fond, and not so fond memories.
Theatre-in-the-round is always a challenging format to direct in, but as a performer it is often exciting as it can be for the audience. In the main auditorium at The Tobacco Factory Theatres, this works really well. The set is simple, but effective, as is the use of the various vomitoria as the entrances and exits to the flats of the characters.
In an unusual move, the cast of 5 is augmented by a community choir who serve as the soundtrack to the play. Intermittently they appear, 20 plus of them, singing and moving around the stage. Sometimes a bit of Mama Cass, sometimes some Cher…. They seem to represent the other residents on the estate watching as the story unfolds – which is often out in the open. Sometimes, we just get their guitarist strumming and singing. It’s a concept that didn’t grab me immediately, but one I warmed to throughout, even though I felt the idea occasionally jarred with the play as a whole.
The 5 actors are universally excellent. As the central character of Jamie, Ted Reilly is likeable, believable and always watchable and he has excellent rapport with all the others. Phoebe Thomas gives us a hard-nosed, survivor as Jamie’s Mum, Sandra. This is a performance of grit and guts and so very believable. Her boyfriend, Tony, is perfectly presented by Finn Hanlon – he does wafting really well, and his other-worldliness is often very funny. The pocket rocket that is neighbour and friend Leah is given amazing dynamism by Amy-Leigh Hickman – she can deliver a put-down or a one-liner with the best of them. Making his professional stage debut, Tristan Waterson, is sensitive, likeable and tender as Ste – a lovely performance.
The director and performers have made the most of the very funny script and the pacey dialogue allows for lengthy pauses which underline a thought, an action, a situation. By the uplifting end, with the choir singing and watching the two boys dance arm in arm under a glitterball, we get the feeling that suddenly all is right with their worlds (for now) and it is time to celebrate their love, to authorise their sexuality and to look ahead to a brighter future.
Director Mike Tweddle has honoured this lovely play with a caring, respectful and original production and it deserves to be seen by a large audience
‘Beautiful Thing’ is not just a gay play, but representative of an era where there was far less tolerance than there is now on many levels and, far from being a museum piece, it is worthy of regular revivals to show how far society has moved on. It can also show how far parts of society have to go.
A funny, tender, uplifting and beautiful piece of theatre.
FINN HANLON – TONY
AMY-LEIGH HICKMAN – LEAH
TED REILLY – JAMIE
PHOEBE THOMAS – SANDRA
TRISTAN WATERSON – STE
THE COMMUNITY CHOIR
MIKE TWEDDLE – DIRECTOR
ANISHA FIELDS – DESIGNER
THOMAS JOHNSON – MUSICAL DIRECTOR/MUSICIAN
CHRIS SWAN – LIGHTING DESIGNER
PHOTO CREDIT– Mark Dawson Photography