Beautiful Thing – Theatre Royal Stratford East, London

Reviewer: Graham Hadibi-Williams

Writer: Jonathan Harvey

Director: Anthony Simpson-Pike

The Theatre Royal Stratford East is the venue for this 30th Anniversary of the beloved, iconic gay coming-of-age story set on a South East London Council Estate, the Olivier-nominated Beautiful Thing. Here it is brought to the stage by Stratford East, Leeds Playhouse and HOME Manchester, directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike.

The play was written by Jonathan Harvey and first shown in 1993. He took up the baton writing for Coronation Street in 2004, since which he has written well over 300 episodes and has become well known for his camp one-liners and insightful caustic wit. He has now written over 20 plays but Beautiful Thing remains especially loved having been adapted into the seminal queer film of the same name by Film4 in 1996.

Working-class teenagers Jamie (Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran), Ste (Raphael Akuwudike) and Leah (Scarlett Rayner) live alongside each other in a low-rise tower block on the Thamesmead Estate. Jamie is a softer boy, most often skiving from sports and bullied at school, whilst Jamie is popular, into football and in the school relay team, but ruthlessly bullied by his father and brother. Next door is the charmingly dim but insightful, rumbustious Leah who has been kicked out of school.

The set for this production is phenomenal with the estate walkway being the stage and the backdrop a detailed and convincingly observed facade of the three properties down to net curtains in the door windows. Retro wallpaper is revealed as the front doors open and ingenious methods are worked out for keeping this backdrop for scenes in the bedroom and disco dancing in the pub.

This touching tale of burgeoning first love plays out over a long hot summer beginning one evening, after a particularly vicious beating. Ste stays over at Jamie’s, sleeping top-to-tail in his bed and a beautiful thing is sparked as the boys struggle to adapt to their awakening feelings and queer identities.

Harvey’s no holds barred writing and sharp humour are on show from the start as the audience, who innately understand the irreverent comedy and queer references, shriek with laughter as Leah asks ‘Oright Sandra?’ as Jamie’s mum, Shvorne Marks, comes out the door and simply responds ‘Slag’. This is a play rightly revered and has been a right of passage for many an actor, as it is superbly written with many chances for actors to shine in these well-rounded characters and hilarity of the dialogue.

Indeed, it is the two female characters that stand out in this performance. Both Marks and Rayner are bold and brash and, especially Marks, have their timings down to a tee. Harvey loves a strong woman and these two know how to play the over-the-top parts. The most fun is to be had when these two characters are battling out on the walkway, but equally able to show their sensitive side, their care coming through as the sexuality and relationship of the boys becomes obvious.

The play had a delayed first night due to the actor playing Jamie having to pull out due to personal circumstances and the whole play was postponed for ten days whilst Owokoniran stepped in to play the part of Jamie. Akuwudike is convincing as the sporty Ste. However, Owokoniran, in this performance, still needs time to perfect Jamie. At times there is a noticeable lack of chemistry between the two. But this should grow in time.

Runs until 7 October 2023

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Queer awakenings

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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