Theatre Royal Stratford East – until 7th October 2023
Reviewed by Ben Jolly
Celebrating its thirtieth anniversary since the play was first performed, Beautiful Thing has returned to the London stage, this time around at the charismatic Theatre Royal Stratford East; and a celebration it is.
Jonathan Harvey’s play is quite simply a beautiful thing. Set in a council estate in South East London’s Thamesmead, we are introduced to a group of wonderfully rounded, complex and loveable characters who are dealing with the struggles and woes that come with everyday life living in a council estate in the early ‘90s.
Our main protagonists are the two teenage boys, Ste and Jamie, who are brilliantly and tenderly performed by Raphael Akuwudike and Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran. They are neighbours and in an estate like this one, everyone knows each other’s business. While both are struggling with their own demons in the real world, they find themselves in a situation that quickly leads to a romantic partnership. In a time and place where this play is set, things could get at best messy and at worst, violently dangerous and while the more obvious route as a writer would be to show us this version, Harvey has opted to tell a story of strength, love and having the nerve to face one’s own demons head on.
This is more than just a “gay play”. With its clever wit, killer one-liners and at times farcical humour, Harvey is able to touch upon a multitude of heavy subjects without overbearing us with their weight; from financial struggles, domestic abuse to the UK’s schooling and class systems, this tribe of relatives, friends and frenemies power through with love and humour being their ultimate weapon. On page, this play has a perfect balance and on stage, it is only escalated with the laugh out loud one-liners and physical comedy, thanks to Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge, Shvorne Marks and Scarlett Rayner who round off the cast with wonderfully delivered performances.
It’s incredibly interesting to witness this play thirty years after it was written – it’s a minefield of niche 90s references and if it had been written today, I would be more critical of this device but knowing that it was penned in the then present-day it feels more like a nostalgic time capsule from days gone by. What’s more interesting, however, is Harvey’s choice to write such a warm and positive piece regarding homosexuality in a time when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was at its peak; I am sure that this was a conscious decision at the time, and it still pays off to this day.
With shrewd direction by Anthony Simpson-Pike and effective set design by Rosie Elnile, this production is set to move onto Leeds Playhouse and HOME Manchester after the run at Stratford East. I can’t help but think that the subliminal northern humour and rhythms that season this play will transfer exceptionally with the audiences up north too. Harvey hails from Liverpool and while this piece is set in South East London, you can’t help but notice the northern tongue throughout his use of language.
At thirty years old, Harvey’s Beautiful Thing has aged extremely well and I predict that it will continue to many years from now. It is unfortunate that while the world has moved on so much for the better, the themes explored in this piece are still so relevant today. However, what continues to stand out with this play is that love and laughs are of paramount importance as ever.