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Love in the face of adversity. Secret meetings. Fervent kisses. Romeo and Juliet meet council estate life in Johnathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing. In his first production for Tobacco Factory Theatres, Artistic Director Mark Tweddle was tasked with bringing Harvey’s vision of two star-crossed lovers to The Dukes Theatre.
Performed in the round, the audience gets to experience the action close up. As the lights dimmed, the Ridge Community Choir performed Mama Cass’ ‘It’s Getting Better’. Sophia Khan (Costume Supervisor) and Jennifer Hider (Wardrobe Assistant) imbued the production with 90’s realism in the form of shell suits and block colour creations. Having a choir perform live for the 25th anniversary of Beautiful Thing was a great touch, and while the Ridge choir zap some community spirit into the audience, some renditions did not quite hit the high note of the opening number.
Nirvana was better left alone.
Harvey’s 1990’s Britain is anything but kind. When we first meet Jamie (Ted Reilly), Ste (Tristan Waterson), and Leah (Amy-Leigh Hickman) outside their neighbouring flats on the Thamesmead estate, we see that the characters have developed hard outer shells to survive, Leah especially. Kicked out of school and spending her time listening to Mama Cass, Leah is a slut, a bitch, and is most definitely not welcome when the boys sneak off to Jamie’s house.
Reilly embodies Jamie (the epitome of teenage angst), and it is both touching and funny to watch him grapple with his tentative desire for Ste, who is like a scared cat when faced with Jamie’s affection. Harvey’s play reflects the morality surrounding sexuality in an impoverished community and explores the difficulty of a same-sex relationship in a world where everyone is hanging onto their personal lives by a thread: Jamie is bullied at school, and Ste faces the brunt of his father’s anger at home.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
Beautiful Thing brings humour to working-class lives: when Jamie’s mum Sandra (played by Phoebe Thomas) points out the ‘barmaid of the year’ engraving on her hanging basket, we see that pride is hard won on the Thamesmead estate. Thomas does not put a foot out of place in her performance: she is the bolshy, brash, single mother of one and barmaid to the masses who wishes the best for her son. She finds solace in the men she brings home, the flavour of the month being the 20 something Tony.
I can’t heap enough praise on Finn Hanlon, who brings nuance and fun to Tony, the part-time artist type who follows Sandra round with puppy dog eyes. Tristan Waterson and Amy-Leigh Hickman should be applauded for their stage debuts: Hickman perhaps brings more life and soul to the Mama Cass obsessed school drop-out, while Waterson impresses with the tender moments between him and Reilly.
Before going to see Beautiful Thing, I had no idea it existed. Twenty-five years on, it is easy to marvel at Beautiful Thing’s timelessness. In the midst of the heart-warming embraces at the end, we forget that Ste and Jamie’s happiness is dependent on everyone keeping their mouth shut. Star-crossed lover’s subplot aside, I’m looking forward to a future where Beautiful Thing is past it’s sell-by-date.
This anniversary production of Beautiful Thing was hosted at the Dukes Theater. For more events, such as their upcoming Christmas shows, head to dukes-lancaster.org