At the risk of repeating myself, gentle reader, back in the Dark Ages I undertook postgrad research into the effects of the withdrawal of stage censorship, and, as a result, potentially censorable (or just plain naughty) plays have always held a certain fascination for me. That was one of the reasons I wanted to see Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing. If it had been produced in the mid-1960s it would most certainly have been censored – although primarily, I think, for its frequent use of the C word. However, the play first saw the light of day in 1993 and by 1994 was winning awards in the West End, long after the abolition of censorship. Just as that was a very different time from the 60s, it’s also a very different time from today. I can’t imagine nowadays a repeat of the incident that apparently happened in 1994 where a local councillor from Bexley went to see it at the Duke of York’s then left after twenty minutes, saying it was misleading to call it a comedy, that they were intimidated by gays in the bar and that it was sickening to see older and younger homosexuals in public together. Three different eras indeed.
But the themes of the play are timeless. Bullying, self-discovery, addiction, and above all, young love; creating a beautiful thing out of a wasteland. 15 year old Jamie lives with his barmaid/pub-managing mum Sandra who rules the roost as any good pub landlady would. When the play opens she is furiously ditching all his childhood games and ephemera as a punishment for his continually bunking off sports afternoon at school. A slightly misleading start, actually, because, as you know in advance that it’s a play about two boys falling in love, I wondered if this was her initial reaction to discovering her son was gay. But no, it’s not; that discovery comes much later. In a close-knit, working-class community, Jamie’s neighbours are 16 year old Ste, very much his opposite as you can’t keep him off the sports field, but whereas Sandra is an essentially loving parent (although you can’t always tell), Ste’s father is an abusive alcoholic and his family basically treat him as their laundry slave, merrily assaulting him just for the hell of it. Jamie’s other neighbour is Leah, expelled from school for drug-taking and other misdemeanours, who whiles away her hours listening to Mama Cass.
When Ste runs to Sandra for shelter whilst his father’s on a drunken rampage, she insists Ste stays overnight and thus Ste and Jamie end up sleeping top-to-tail in Jamie’s bedroom. When Ste returns a second time, bearing the bruises on his back where he’s been beaten up, he stays in Jamie’s room again, but this time Jamie convinces him to go from top-to-tail to top-to-top, as it were. And that’s how their relationship starts, and the rest of the play covers how they deal with it (Ste is very uncomfortable about it at first), how Sandra finds out, and how they all come to terms with their new situation. At the risk of using the J-word, all the characters undergo their own journey, and over the course of the two hours, nothing stays the same – That’s What I Call Drama. And, joy of joys, it even has a happy ending, with Jamie and Ste dancing together with full glitterball effect, and with a positive eye to the future. Although we always suspected it would end happily – the show starts to the sound of Mama Cass singing “It’s Getting Better”, and you can’t get much more positive than that.
It’s a beautifully written, smartly crafted play, with some really meaty characters for the actors to get their teeth into, and this honest and straightforward co-production between the Nottingham Playhouse and the Leicester Curve did it proud. Sadly, you can’t go and see it anymore, as the last three dates on the tour – to London’s Arts Theatre, Cardiff and Brighton – have been pulled due to lack of ticket sales earlier on in the run. As they said in Blood Brothers, an unfortunate sign of the times, Miss Jones. So I’m very pleased we snuck in to see the last matinee, at one of my favourite venues, the Studio at the Curve. For an intimate theatre it has a relatively large stage, so you can put on a full scale show whilst retaining a cosiness that’s lost in the main theatre.
Colin Richmond’s set is usefully shabby and conjures up the relative poverty of the environment without ever going over the top. There’s a very nice contrast between the well-worn old baby bike that’s always left outside, on which Jamie and Leah like to play (emphasising their youth) and the aspirational, quality, hanging baskets that decorate Sandra’s front door, which she guards with her life. And one of the stars of the show is Jamie’s bed, magically appearing from below with a simple unrolling of a blanket and sheet – very deftly done. Mr Richmond’s costumes are also very well chosen, with some delightfully tarty dresses for Sandra, Ste’s too-big sports t-shirt (no doubt, he’ll grow into it), and an outlandish creation for Leah when she’s on her bad trip.
But it’s the performances that really make this play work. Central to the whole show is a fantastic performance by Charlie Brooks as Sandra. Strong, outspoken and determined from the start, she lays down the law (or tries to) right from the start, with a cunning blend of heart of gold and utter bitch. Protective towards her boy but definitely into living life to the full and for herself, it’s a really convincing portrayal of someone who has to work very hard, wants to provide a good life for her family, has a sense of fun but is also pretty ruthless with it. Not being a soap watcher, Miss Brooks is new to us, but she’s got an amazing stage presence and gave a walloping good performance.
She is matched by two other superb performances from the actors playing Jamie and Ste. Jamie is played by Sam Jackson with quiet confidence and growing charisma, as he develops from awkward little boy to proud young man. Thomas Law as Ste gives a stunning mature performance, as he wrestles with the character’s internal emotions and sexual needs; a boy with a man’s problems. The two actors portray Jamie and Ste’s relationship with great tenderness and integrity, creating a very moving account of first love. Not to say it doesn’t have its humour too; at a moment of early intimacy where Ste is laying down on his front and Jamie is rubbing peppermint cream into the bruises on his back, and you think something significant may just be about to happen, Ste hurriedly dismisses Jamie’s invitation to turn over for further treatment presumably in order to stifle a hidden erection in the sheets. Very nicely done. There’s also excellent support from Vanessa Babirye as the troublesome but troubled Leah and Gerard McCarthy as Sandra’s latest flame Tony, propelled into resolving all sorts of family difficulties when all he was hoping for was a few decent shags.
My only quibble with it – and I’m not sure if it’s a problem of the play or the production – is that I didn’t get a sense of the timespan involved. I couldn’t work out if it all happens over a few days or a couple of years. Certainly the boys are 15 and 16 when they start their relationship – but by the end of the play they are regulars at the gay pub, Sandra’s career is on the upturn, Leah seems to be taking steps to improve her life and Tony has gone from hero to zero. It would make more sense (in my head at least) if the story was set over a reasonably prolonged period – but neither visually nor in the text (I think) was there anything to give us that clue.
The performance received a hugely warm reception from the audience in the Studio and, even if it wasn’t a commercial success, artistically and emotionally this will have touched hearts and broken down barriers. A funny and warm play, superbly performed.