Writer: Jonathan Harvey
Director: Mike Tweddle
Music: Thomas Johnson
Designer: Anisha Fields
Lighting: Chris Swain
Reviewer: Leah Tozer
Once I believed that when love came to me, it would come with rockets, bells, and poetry – but with me and you, it just started quietly, and grew… and it’s getting better.
Beautiful Thing at the Tobacco Factory Theatres begins with a beautiful chorus of Mama Cass’s It’s Getting Better from a community choir, and it’s everything this urban fairytale should be about: affection, optimism, and community.
Written in the nineties, 2018 marks its 25th anniversary, and with age, it’s grown a warm, nostalgic naivety from the nearly anarchic work it was then. It is ‘getting better’, but the heartbreaking effects of homophobia aren’t. The Tobacco Factory’s Beautiful Thing is heart-warming, celebratory, bitingly funny, but also a remembrance of just how ground-breaking Jonathan Harvey’s work was, in being about the beauty of two gay teenage boys falling in love with each other.
And maybe it’s the absence of any ‘bury your gays’ symbolism that’s so ubiquitous in LBGTQ+ literature that gives Beautiful Thing its ‘urban fairytale’ subtitle. The two boys live in a tower block on the Thames, brave the blistering temperatures and tempers of Ste’s father and brother, sleep top-to-toe in Jamie’s single bed, play football, fall in love, go to a gay bar, break up, get back together, and both live to tell the tale. In Ste’s abusive offstage father, there is the threat of the less beautiful things they’ll face in the future, but for the time being, their bliss is a fairytale ending danced under a disco ball.
The innocent intimacy of their relationship is illuminated by the intimacy of the theatre, and it’s director Mike Tweddle’s tender understanding of the theatre’s dynamics that ensures the action is understood by the all of the in-the-round audience: even if the bruises on Ste’s back are obscured from one side, the shocked intake of breath from the other side show us all we need to see. And, under Chris Swain’s subtle lighting that’s brilliantly natural as both a bedside lamp and bright sunlight, the concrete barrier of a council block balcony, the blue frame of a front door, and the flowers blooming in their baskets despite the urban obstacles are all that’s needed to set the scene in Anisha Fields’s design.
The boys’ love blossoms in adversity like the flowers that bloom delicately through the cracks in the concrete, with both Ted Reilly (Jamie) and Tristan Waterson (Ste) boyish and beautifully believable. A brilliantly brash Amy-Leigh Hickman balances their nervous innocence as Leah, the noisy, nosy neighbour, and her no-holds-barred banter with Phoebe Thomas’s brassy, battle-hardened barmaid is biting. Thomas’s scene with her son where she forces him to come out to her is uncomfortable, but it’s acted with such care and compassion that her character isn’t unforgivable, more confused by the secrecy in the confines of their council flat. With Finn Hanlon’s laughably laidback boyfriend, the scene with the five of them cracking beers on the balcony is a tour-de-force in tackling Harvey’s teasing, fast-talking banter.
The cast is completed by the choir that is both Beautiful Thing’s council estate community and an emblem of Bristol’s community, and, led by guitarist Thomas Johnson, the arrangements of nineties Nirvana and the nostalgic It’s Getting Better are both joyous and tear-jerking.
Beautiful Thing may be a heartfelt fairytale, but it lets two boys fall in love and live happily ever after, and that’s a blissful, beautiful thing.
Runs until Saturday 27th October | Image: Mark Dawson Photography