Beautiful Thing @ Sound Theatre, London

cast list
Andrew Garfield
Gavin Brocker
Michelle Terry
Carli Norris
Leo Bill

directed by
Toby Frow
Jonathan Harvey’s none-more-celebrated gay play Beautiful Thing was turned into what became a cult film 10 years ago. Telling the tale of Jamie and Ste, two adolescent boys on a south-east London council estate, it married an upbeat soundtrack of Mama Cass and summer sunshine with dreary concrete architecture and the mundane lives of its inhabitants to create the very definition of bittersweet.

With recent changes to the UK’s laws on civil partnerships and a script comprised in the main of hilariously lowbrow banter, the mood is more celebratory in 2006 than in 1993, when Harvey offered a challenge for equality.

At this, the Sound Theatre’s final production before closing, punters – almost entirely male – attending this revival having seen the film will find both familiar and unexpected aspects to consider.

In the space once used to record the Pepsi Max Chart Show for Channel Five, amongst the familiar aspects is Ben Stone’s solid-looking set. A single outdoor corridoor of the council block comes complete with doors, windows and concrete, a cross section that’s as realistic as it is impressive. Down stage is a bed and a half height wall representing Jamie’s bedroom.

Andrew Garfield’s slender Jamie is the perfect contrasting foil to Gavin Brocker’s butch Ste. As Jamie, Garfield seems to become more camp as the play progresses and as the character embraces his sexuality. Brocker as Ste, whose character struggles between domestic abuse and his burgeoning friendship with Jamie, leaves his character less obviously gay. The two work well together in a case of opposites attracting and discovering their similarities – and a scene involving a spin on Cagney & Lacey that somehow didn’t make the film is hilarious here.

The other three members of what is really an ensemble cast offer interpretations of their roles that differ from the film. As the boys’ neighbour, the expelled Leah, Michelle Terry seems more vitriolic and bitchy than Tameka Empson’s interpretation in the film, but in consequence she gives the character a streak of steely determination alongside the teenage dizzyness and hippy-diddly cod-Cass culture she embraces.

As Jamie’s mother Sandra, Carli Norris dominates the stage and her lines – especially her self-righteous put-downs, spark with precise comedic timing, allowing the jokes to be as much on her as on her unlucky targets. Leo Bill, in a role previously played by Ben Daniels and Rhys Ifans as Sandra’s hippy-wannabe boyfriend, a painter-decorator whose heart is in the right place but whose words are rarely timely, is the final piece of a cast who scarcely put a foot – or a word – wrong.

Toby Frow’s pacy direction utilises the remarkable set well, and by the evening’s end the delighted audience leave smiling. Despite the occasional update, Beautiful Thing still feels like a comfortingly familiar experience. It’s not quite at The Rocky Horror Show‘s status yet, but it’s showing every sign of lasting as long, both in theatres and in audience affections.

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