Thursday, 30 April 2015

Review: Beautiful Thing at Nottingham Playhouse

It is easy to forget that sometimes in an audience member's life it is the first time they have viewed a play despite it being around for a couple of decades and despite said play having a worldwide cult following. It is easy to be ignorant of why the play is such a draw to audiences whether gay or straight. On a first time viewing of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing at Nottingham Playhouse, a play centred around an awkward blossoming and loving relationship between two young male teenagers, this reviewer finds himself initially confused at its success. Dramatically interesting yes, amusing certainly, brave even, but what is the big deal?

Beautiful Thing is set in the early 1990s and had its world première at the Bush Theatre in July 1993. The play won rave reviews from critics and audiences alike and went on to tour the following year with a short run at the Donmar Warehouse. In 1994 it made its West End début at the Duke of York's Theatre and shortly after the run work began on a screen adaptation. In 1996 Film4 Productions released the film to more acclaim and the story reached a much wider audience than all theatres combined. Beautiful Thing has gone on to be a worldwide success entertaining and enlightening audiences in Germany, Holland, The USA and Australia. It must have something going for it then, surely.
Charlie Brooks and Sam Jackson as Sandra and Jamie
This initial confusion of mine is not inferring that it is not a good play. It most certainly is and is very well written and performed with a huge amount of honesty and energy by the small cast of five. It is the second time director Nikoli Foster has directed this play set on a landing outside three homes on a rough Thamesmead council estate in South East London and the direction is acutely observed.

Any personal confusion about why the blossoming gay relationship between the teenage boys Jamie (Sam Jackson) and Ste (Thomas Law) should be such a big deal stems from my own ignorance regarding the fact that in the 1990s this relationship would have been illegal. Even more shocking to discover is the fact that the play was produced only one year after homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in Great Britain. I was genuinely shocked to learn that homosexuality was considered a mental illness. I know that people can be prejudiced but that is a whole new level of intolerance.

Now I start to understand how such a piece of theatre could be life changing and continue to inform and offer hope to the often marginalised gay, bisexual and trans members of society. My confusion is lessened even more by my further reading (excellent and invaluable programme notes by Ruth Hunt CEO of Stonewall) that states that despite some recently historical changes in the law regarding lesbian and gay relationships there is still a long way to go to total non discrimination. Bullying and violence towards these members of society still continues whilst bigotry and ignorance prevails and even the simple sight of two men holding hands in the street can provoke strong reactions in some in 2015. How must it have been in the 1990s of the story of Beautiful Thing? In some it would have offered a confirmation that their love and sexuality was being shown in a positive light. In others a chance to walk out as Mr and Mrs Disgusted at the interval and never return. Thankfully, the majority stayed put.

Gerard McCarthy and Charlie Brooks as Tony and Sandra

So, do I now consider Jonathan Harvey's play differently after my first time viewing and have a deeper understanding of the issues it addresses? Yes. I feel it is a poignant play that grows on you and helps one consider the plights and lives and loves of others that should have an equality of good fortune the same as everyone and the same socio-political rights.

The production currently at Nottingham Playhouse enthrals and moves in its drama, wickedly amuses in the comedy element and is occasionally shocking in its moments relating to causal domestic violence.

Thomas Law and Sam Jackson as Ste and Jamie

The whole cast are exceptionally strong in their character portrayals. Charlie Brooks amuses with her brash humour and is tender with her feelings towards son Jamie even when he comes out as being gay. Sam Jackson is perfect as the sensitive young man Jamie, vulnerable but brave in initiating a homosexual relationship with his friend and schoolboy neighbour Ste.

Thomas Law is heart breaking as Ste the sixteen year old; beaten but not down; in denial of his sexuality and finally hopeful in his desperate need for love and acceptance. Gerard McCarthy is wonderfully alive and enigmatic as Sandra's hippy artist lover Tony. Vanessa Babirye is frighteningly realistic in her drugged up depiction as Mama Cass reborn and totally convincing generally in the complex role as the mixed up neighbour Leah. There are still references in the play to 1990s television personalities and jokes about them are thoroughly enjoyed by the Nottingham Playhouse audience.

The Brutalism inspired set design (Colin Richmond both set and costume design) allows for fast changes and creative interpretation of the piece and adds considerably to the atmosphere of the piece. Ben Cracknell's (lighting design) and George Dennis's (sound) enhance the whole experience.

Vanessa Babirye as Leah

There is a lot of fun and food for thought in Beautiful Thing, a play that doesn't posture as a gay play but provides hope and enlightenment for those who need its nourishment. Beautifully done.

Review originally published by The Public Reviews on 29th April 2015

Photo Credit Anton Belmonte.

Beautiful Thing plays at Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 9th May. See this LINK for booking.

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