Beautiful Thing is a play that has earned its place in the queer canon of theatre and from this 30th anniversary revival it’s easy to see why. It truly is a rare and special show; while we see a lot of queer theatre, we don’t often see plays as heartwarming and uplifting as this one. We’ve reviewed countless LGBTQ+ shows over the years and have seen similar themes emerging – HIV/AIDS stories, or working through shame or trauma – and while these are of course important issues that need a spotlight shone on them, there are other stories to be told and Beautiful Thing is one to be celebrated.
For those unfamiliar with Jonathan Harvey’s seminal work, it focuses on the lives of gay teenagers Jamie (Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran) and Ste (Raphael Akuwudike), who are neighbours on a council estate in Thamesmead. Jamie’s mother Sandra (Shvorne Marks) is concerned for Ste’s safety, with a seemingly violent situation at home, and invites him to stay. Jamie and Ste end up sharing a bed and… well, we won’t spoil what happens next. Over the course of two hours we also meet neighbour Leah (Scarlett Rayner) and Sandra’s boyfriend Tony (Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge).
We felt it important to namecheck each individual cast member as they all turn in excellent performances. The source material is, of course, excellent: there’s a reason this play has stood the test of time and has also been turned into a hit film – Jonathan Harvey’s text is engaging, charming and full of brilliant one-liners – and each actor delivers their part with warmth and expert timing. We’re hard pressed to pick a favourite as everyone is individually so strong, although Shvorne Marks as mother Sandra is a strong contender, displaying some brilliant physical comedy and facial expressions; she exudes an effortless charm.
It’s a simply-staged show which manages to capture the essence of ’90s England. Whether one of the boys is brandishing an immaculately-preserved copy of GAY TIMES magazine from 30 years ago, or they’re playing cassettes or discussing what nice boys East 17 are, we bought into the time and place of Beautiful Thing. It’s not the most impressive looking or sounding production we’ve seen, but with dialogue this sharp and acting this strong it doesn’t really need any additional bells and whistles.
We had a thoroughly enjoyable evening at the theatre with Beautiful Thing: this is a coming out and coming-of-age story about discovery, of finding out that there are other people like you, and opening up an exciting new world of possibilities. It’s also important to remember that when this show debuted in 1993 it was against a backdrop of Section 28, at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, in a world where the media and government were demonising gay people. Jonathan Harvey set out to show that the love between two men can be tender, it can indeed be something beautiful – this play shows that it truly is.
GAY TIMES gives Beautiful Thing – 4/5