Reviews Manchester Published 15 November 2011

Beautiful Thing

Royal Exchange ⋄ 9th November - 3rd December 2011

Love’s young dream.

John Murphy

It’s strange to think that Jonathan Harvey’s debut play caused so much fuss when it first premiered that a Conservative councillor described it as “sickening and intimidating”. For, 18 years on, albeit in a thankfully more accepting society, Beautiful Thing seems chaste, innocent and rather sweet.

Harvey’s coming of age tale has had many incarnations since 1993, including an acclaimed film, while Harvey has gone on to create TV shows, like the sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme, and write for Coronation Street. His long-standing ambition to see one of his productions held at the Royal Exchange though has led to this revival of his debut play, helmed by Sarah Frankcom.

Beautiful Thing tells the story of Jamie, a gauche, awkward teenager with a fractious relationship with his mother, and a friendship with the Mama Cass obsessed girl on his estate. When he starts to experience the pang of attraction to schoolmate Stu, it turns his life upside-down. Frankcom recreates the early 90s perfectly (even down to the choice of music during the interval) and keeps things moving at a fast pace. She’s well served by her cast too, particularly Claire-Louise Cordwell, who is truly brilliant as Jamie’s brassy mother Sandra. In other hands her character could have easily become a caricature, the ‘tart with a heart’, but Cordwell is superb at slowly letting the vulnerability under Sandra’s armour shine through. Tara Hodge also does great work as Jamie’s lonely friend Leah, and receives possibly the biggest laughs of the night during her Mama Cass-inspired meltdown.

The play’s central relationship between Jamie and Stu, two lonely, damaged teenagers searching for a connection, is tenderly portrayed by Matthew Tennyson and Tommy Vine. Although Vine looks a fair bit older than Tennyson, their friendship – and increasing attraction towards one another – is always believable. There’s real chemistry between them and together they capture the elusive electricity of first love. Alex Price handles the play’s more light-hearted moments well as Sandra’s younger boyfriend Tony.

Staging the play, which is set on a high-rise council estate, in the round poses some problems. Frankcom’s production can’t quite create the necessary sense of urban claustrophobia, people piled on top of one another, but Liz Ashcroft’s magnificent set design goes some way to remedying this;  it’s topped off with an enormous globe which gives a real sense of a ‘city in the sky’.

Harvey’s script remains as enjoyable and incisive as it ever was; the ’90s cultural references are still resonant too, which on the night I attended resulted in a slightly surreal moment during the scene where Jamie and Stu discuss Coronation Street‘s Sally Webster, with the actress herself, Sally Whittaker, as well as several other Corrie actors, sat just yards away in the stalls.

It may not have the visceral power of Frankcom’s recent production of Miller’s A View From The Bridge, but then this is a very different beast. By the time of the final scene, where the cast are joined by the Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus for an a cappella version of Dream A Little Dream, your heart is filled to bursting point. A touching, uplifting production; a beautiful thing, indeed.

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John Murphy

John is the former editor of, and current contributor to, musicOMH. He lives in Sheffield, in the shadow of the famous Crucible and Lyceum theatres, and also reviews in nearby Leeds and Manchester. John is also a huge fan of stand-up comedy, and can be often be found in one of Sheffield's comedy clubs, laughing like a madman.

Beautiful Thing Show Info


Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Written by Jonathan Harvey

Cast includes Matthew Tennyson, Tommy Vine, Claire-Louise Cordwell, Tara Hodge, Alex Price

Link http://www.royalexchange.co.uk/

Running Time 1 hr 50 minutes (including interval)

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