When Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing premiered in 1993, headlines were still grappling with Aids and Section 28 –legislation introduced by the Thatcher government in 1988 which banned local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality (and which would not be repealed in England and Wales for another decade). Since then, this tender, character-driven play about two working class teenage boys falling in love on a south London housing estate, has been performed globally and made into a film.
Any new production, therefore, has to contend with the play’s storied legacy as part of the canon of LGBTQ+ theatre classics. By casting black actors as the protagonists, however, Anthony Simpson-Pike’s 30th anniversary revival distinguishes itself, foregrounding race as a core factor in Harvey’s witty examination of the intersection between class, gender and sexuality. It’s a simple but canny way to refresh the play for audiences who might not have even been alive during its first outing.
Neighbours and schoolmates 15-year-old Jamie and 16-year-old Ste couldn’t be more different in temperament. Jamie –played by Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran as an introverted but resolute young man – hates sports, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Sound of Music and, due to school bullying, is a habitual truant. Meanwhile, Ste’s (Raphael Akuwudike) popularity as a football star is counteracted by beatings meted out by his alcoholic, abusive father.
When Ste endures one too many batterings, Jamie’s mother Sandra (Shvorne Marks, in blistering comic form) – whose parenting style is best likened to a loving but short-tempered lioness – gives him refuge in their flat. Lacking an extra bed, she naively instructs Ste to top-and-tail with Jamie.
Thanks to committed and authentic performances from Owokoniran and Akuwudike, it’s in this inarticulate interaction, during which Jamie and Ste lean into their burgeoning queerness together, that the play finds its big, open heart.
As the boys explore their sexuality, the community also tentatively finds its footing. Sharing the walkway in front of the postwar concrete flats, cleverly designed by Rosie Elnile, is their neighbour Leah (Scarlett Rayner), who will become an ally to the boys and whose raucous spikiness, expressed in caustic barbs traded with Sandra, veils her own vulnerability.
Harvey’s spare wordplay and compelling characters are sharply astute. Wisely, Simpson-Pike’s direction, which isn’t afraid to use silence as an effective way to ratchet up the tension, gives the staging and actors ample space for the script to work its effervescent magic alongside a soundtrack of 90s tunes and Mama Cass songs.
It feels somewhat reductive to say that this is a queer play just because its protagonists happen to be gay when it is, in fact, a very human story that defies you not to leave the theatre wrapped in a warm, nostalgic glow.
Until October 7. Tickets: www.stratfordeast.com