Beautiful Thing at Theatre Royal Stratford East review: gleefully of its time but more timeless than ever


iscovering Beautiful Thing is like a rite of passage for teen gays, whether in the form of the cult 1996 film or in one of the many revivals starring the likes of Andrew Garfield, Jonathan Bailey and Jonny Lee Miller.

Who knew gay love could be depicted as something other than tragic? That working class gay love could be about acceptance and joy, not just homophobia? That it didn’t have to be all misty-eyed Merchant Ivory tastefulness, that there was room for gags about frottage?

Well Jonathan Harvey did. When he wrote his breakthrough play in 1993, set on a Thamesmead council estate, he wanted to counter the dehumanising language around Section 28 and to simply show two teenagers falling in love. Gay love not as buggery and sodomy and AIDS – the language used in parliament and the papers – but as, yes, a beautiful thing.

Thirty years later it’s still beautiful, and as Anthony Simpson-Pike’s solid but slightly stilted anniversary revival shows, it’s got this other quality about it too: gleefully of its time – aspic clings to the mentions of Autumnal Shades tissues – but more timeless than ever.

There’s football-obsessed Ste who escapes his abusive alcoholic dad by bunking next door with the more Cagney and Lacey-oriented Jamie. All those top-and-tailing nights lead to first fumblings under the duvet, then breathless agonising over the agony aunt column in Gay Times, and an unfurling first relationship.

Most productions have had white casts, but here it’s an all black cast except for Mama Cass-obsessed teenager Leah, a fabulously bolshy, sometimes devastatingly vulnerable Scarlett Rayner. It’s a deliberate gesture from Simpson-Pike: an embracing of black queerness, a widening of the net which the play casts out.

But it also shows how much Harvey’s play isn’t about race. It’s about class, sexuality, gender roles, poverty, domestic abuse, love, identity, but it’s not really about race. You really want the characters to acknowledge it, but they’re locked into a script that just doesn’t really go there.

Raphael Akuwudike (Ste) and Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran (Jamie)

/ The Other Richard

Still, in a way that doesn’t actually matter. Love is love. Simpson Pike brings out some wonderful performances, especially Raphael Akuwudike who finds the sweet spot as Ste, all wide eyes and innocent grin, alongside Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran as Jamie, stepping in heroically after previews had begun when Joshua Asaré was forced to drop out just a few days before opening. Jamie’s unfiltered pub landlady mother Sandra is a gift of a part, and Shvorne Marks seizes it with her walloping tongue and weary cynicism.

There’s a bit too much pastiching from Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge’s Tony, Sandra’s artist boyfriend, and a bit of patchiness in Simpson-Pike’s direction as jolting gear shifts – Jamie and Sandra hitting each other one moment and chatting casually the next – strain credibility. But maybe once Owokoniran is more settled it’ll smooth itself out.

And anyway, the scenes when Jamie and Ste slowly relax into each other’s company in the tiny single bed absolutely crackle, Simpson-Pike nailing those moments of softness and tenderness.

We’ve got Heartstopper now. We’ve got gender discourse. You’d think the radicalism of Beautiful Thing has dimmed. Far from it. Even if it clunks occasionally, Simpson-Pike’s production, without much fuss, renews the play’s claim to gay greatness.

Theatre Royal Stratford East, to October 7; buy tickets here