Originally written and performed thirty years ago, Jonothan Harvey’s iconic play Beautiful Thing follows neighbours and classmates Ste and Jamie as they come of age in 90’s Britain on a South London council estate.
Beautiful Thing by Jonothan Harvey
Though on the surface they have nothing in common- Ste spent his childhood playing football, Jamie spent his reenacting episodes of Cagney and Lacey- They are both trying to escape. Jamie from the bullying he faces each day at school and Ste from the bullying that waits for him at home.
As his home life worsens, Ste seeks sanctuary with Jamie and his fiercely protective mother Sandra.
Ste and Jamie’s relationship blossoms into something more as the newfound intimacy between them grows.
Wonderful Set Design
The set (designed by Rosie Elnile) perfectly depicts a British council estate, down to mud brown doors and stray child’s bike.
As an audience, we are never invited in, almost every scene is performed with a backdrop of impervious front doors and frosted glass that’s so synonymous with an industrial block of flats.
This is an exciting and effective choice because it shows how every character’s life is defined by the estate they live on, and more broadly their working-class upbringing.
It shows where the roots of each character lie and implies that for at least some of them, this place that holds so much baggage is inescapable.
Beautiful Thing begins without any fanfare, the audience is simply and very deliberately dropped into the story.
Immediately, you are made to feel like this isn’t a story with a concrete start and end, but one that is unfolding again and again.
Elliot Griggs Lighting Design
Elliot Griggs’ lighting design helps to transition between scenes and it is just as successful in conveying the blue dark of dusk as the technicolour lights of a gay club.
This adds to the audience’s feeling of immersion and makes the story feel that much more tangible.
A Delicate and Gentle Story
Beautiful Thing is a delicate and gentle story that rests solely on the performances of five people.
Each of them is perfectly cast.
They are all able to deftly move between moments of emotion and humour, in a way that feels organic and deeply relatable.
Raphael Akuwudike imbues Ste with so much sensitivity and depth.
He is kind and gentle despite the violence he endures and it is lovely to watch.
While the trope of a straight-acting jock is more than a little overdone, Akuwudike makes it feel brand new.
He has so much charisma it makes Ste inherently likeable. His performance truly feels so special to watch and this makes his character’s growth that much more rewarding.
When the play begins, Jamie is caught in the hinterland between denial and self-acceptance.
He knows who he is, but cannot say it out loud yet. He is a fifteen-year-old who skips school to avoid PE every week and knows every word of The Sound of Music.
He fights with his mum viciously but always kisses her goodbye.
Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran embodies all this nuance with ease.
He is as comfortable making the audience laugh as he is making them cry.
Portrayal Sandra Gangel
Although Beautiful Thing focuses on Ste and Jamie, Shvorne Marks’ portrayal of Sandra Gangel might just be the driving force.
Equal parts acerbic and steadfast, she is a mother who is determined to make the best of things for herself and her son, whether he likes it or not, just to spite those who said she couldn’t. Marks’ stole countless scenes and embodied the spirit of an assiduous working-class single mother with ease.
Excluded from school, Leah splits her time between homeschooling and obsessing over the late folk icon ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot. She also finds plenty of time to antagonise Jamie, Ste and Sandra especially, with the persistence of a kid sister.
Scarlett Raynet as Leah
Scarlett Rayner is in her element on stage. Her portrayal of Leah is so warm that even at her most mean-spirited, Leah is hard to hate.
It’s clear she has been let down in her life, whether by her absent mother or the school system.
As an audience member, you want the best for her. Rayner manages to show Leah’s intricacies with the smallest of mannerisms.
Sandra’s well-meaning but achingly pretentious boyfriend Tony is played by Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge.
He is equal parts kind and cringe-inducing, and yet, the Blackwood-Cambridge’s performance kept the audience on his side and laughing. He is a wonderful comedic actor but manages to convey so much heart even at his most absurd.
Investigating Complex Relationships
At its core, Beautiful Thing is about the characters’ complex relationships with each other and how they change over time. It is heartbreakingly tender and its gentleness is what makes it as timeless as it is revolutionary.
It is so built upon lived experience that it feels less like a story with a definitive beginning and end, and more like one that will repeat itself until the end of time; because there will always be Ste’s and Jamie’s finding love, strength and tenderness within the concrete.
Beautiful Thing is at Home until 11th November and tickets can be booked here