New Vic Theatre until Sat 3 November
A beautiful thing emerging in an ugly place can be particularly touching, whether it’s a wild rose in a junk heap or, in the case of Beautiful Thing at the New Vic, young love in a south London nineties housing estate.
Harsh is the operative word for the environment created by playwright Jonathan Harvey, from the brutal language of his characters to the violence in their families, played out in the oppressive claustrophobia of a concrete estate in sweltering heat. And yet out of this we witness a coming of age and acceptance of sexuality that is heart-warming and uplifting.
Jamie is a bright teenager whose sensitivity and disdain for soccer lead to bullying at school. He lives with his single mother Sandra, a gobby and feisty barmaid, and her ‘artist’ boyfriend Tony, a time-lapsed hippy who she hopes is going to re-paper her lounge. Leah, excluded from school and obsessed with singing like Mama Cass, lives next door with her alcoholic father, tough brother Trev, and more sensitive brother Ste. When Ste burns the bubble-and-squeak he is cooking for dinner he is beaten so badly he flees next door and Sandra lets him sleep top-to-toe with Jamie. The second time this happens, Jamie rubs oil on Ste’s deeply bruised back. They properly share the bed – and their first kiss.
The play was written in 1993 when, as director Mike Tweddle explains, “The Aids epidemic was provoking an increased demonization of gay people, and thanks to Section 28 it was illegal to mention homosexuality in schools.” Attitudes have changed dramatically since then but the challenges these two youngsters face, from bullying in school to their own anxieties and feared reactions, feel real and contemporary.
This is in part because of the convincingly nuanced performances of Ted Reilly as Jamie and Tristan Waterson as Ste – no less so because this is his professional debut. It’s a debut too for Amy-Leigh Hickman as Leah. She provides much pointed humour in her sassy, foul-mouthed tirades. Her own deep insecurities swell to the surface in a hilarious episode where she tries to expand her vocal range by head-butting a hanging basket. Phoebe Thomas as Sandra admirably achieves a similar balance between the outward brashness and the hidden softness. Phoebe and Leah’s closing dance together is as touchingly hopeful and accepting as that of the two boys alongside them.
Sadly, I didn’t feel the same about the community choir which sang several hits from the sixties and nineties during the play. Intended to demonstrate the power of a connected community to support the vulnerable in their midst, it sometimes seemed to me more like a rudderless if harmless rent-a-mob.