This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing. It is startling to think that its first outing, at the Bush Theatre was that long ago, for it feels as fresh and funny as ever.
The play is set on the balcony of a block of council flats in Thamesmead, where Jamie, Leah and Ste have grown up side-by-side. Jamie (an excellent, understated Jake Davies) lives with his mother, Sandra (Suranne Jones), barmaid at a local pub, in one of those slightly co-dependent, single-parent/only child relationships that are often made to look rather miserable, but which is drawn very delicately here. Though there are three children in the play, Sandra is the only one of their parents who makes it to the stage, with the others existing only as voiceovers. Inevitably, she ends up acting as a kind of parent to all three of them, taking in Ste whenever his aggressive father and older siblings get violent.
Theatre seems to me to have a difficult relationship with the working classes: to ignore their existence is extremely dangerous, but so much theatre about working class lives seems reductive, or patronising, or steeped in misery. To portray everything as being absolutely well would look like propaganda for the class system (‘leave them where they are, they’re happy’) but, equally, to give the impression that to be working class is to live a horrible, short, unsatisfying existence makes theatre feel even more culturally exclusive than it already is.
One of the best things about Harvey’s play is that in it he writes with humour and warmth and wit about social groups who are so often portrayed in art as being in desperate or unhappy. Here no one dies in a garret, or gets hooked on heroin, or is beaten to a pulp by strangers. This play about two working class boys falling in love and is, first and foremost, a love story. It is just what it says it is: a beautiful thing.
It’s a beautiful production, too: in Nikolai Foster’s hands, the humour of the piece comes through loud and clear, and it is also great fun to watch the play’s two female characters getting all the best lines. As Sandra, Jones brings spot-on comic timing and great lightness of touch to a complicated, nuanced character who could still, in lesser hands, have been reduced to a boring stereotype. Jones makes Sandra something human and familiar, but with a steely, practical inner strength that is intriguing, if a little under-developed.
The cast are excellent all-round in fact, nailing Harvey’s snappy, chatty dialogue. They also look quite at home on Colin Richmond’s lovely set – with its glowing lanterns on the back wall – which is, like the play itself, both recognisable and realistic while also somehow slightly magical.
As a play Beautiful Thing has a quiet kind of magic, that is charming and hopeful without ever quite being idealised. When I went, the audience was noticeably full of men of a similar age, for whom the play (or the film that was eventually based on it) had clearly been formative or important, and who had remained loyal to it – the man sitting next to me, in fact, told me that he had seen the original production in 1993. Proof, if ever it were needed, that this is still a piece of theatre with something to say, saying it well.