by Jonathan Harvey


Beautiful Thing

If the casting is not quite so felicitous as the first time round, Hettie Macdonald’s Bush Theatre production of Jonathan Harvey’s joyous piece of wish fulfilment remains remarkably fresh, natural and lively after a national tour.

The walkways of designer Robin Don’s authentic looking Thamesmead council flats adapt well to the Donmar, as a dour contemporary South East L4ndon estate becomes infected by the madcap magic of sixties California.

Sophie Stanton expertly reprises her role as the teenage drop out Leab, whose fixation on the late Mama Cass first sets the mood of escapism. Also repeating his performance as the precocious schoolboy Jamie is the remarkably self-possessed Mark Letheren, who has the detached look of the clever child. Shaun Dingwall as Ste, the classmate with whom Jamie falls in love, has a gangly, fidgety charm yet lacks the flinching vulnerability tat Jonny Lee Miller originally brought to the part of this cruelly battered youngster.

Amelda Brown steps confidently into the white stilettos of Patricia Kerrigan as Jamie’s aggressively sexy barmaid mum Sandra. Yet that marvellous comedy actor Richard Bonneville is rather better suited to playing Hooray Henrys than Sandra’s dippy hippy decorator boyfriend Tony. His nasal intonations never quite match the superb delivery of his predecessor Philip Glenister.  Pity, because the oddball relationship between the fiercely competitive Sandra and the hilariously woolly Tony is central to the play’s masterly depiction of an older but scarcely wiser generation, whose own misspent youth hardly puts them in a position to lecture their young. Harvey really understands the moral dilemmas of thoroughly modern families.

Maureen Paton

Sophie Stanton and Mark in Beautiful Thing

Theatre /Alastair Macaulay

Beautiful Thing

When people ask “But where are the new plays?”, there are several different kinds of answer to give. But as good a reply as any is simply to say “Try the Bush.” The Bush Theatre, above the Bush Pub on the corner of Shepherds Bush Green, has been in the forefront of presenting new drama for years now. There are other places — e.g. the Royal Court — whose new plays may be more innovative in sheer writing and structure; but at the Bush (thanks to its artistic director Dominic Dromgoole) there is a real house style, and a real alertness to the way people live today. Play upon play there seems to be tapped right into the way things are, and audiences lap up each show.

Watching Jonathan Harvey’s new play, Beautiful Thing, you can feel how easily its audience follows every current and allusion. Its action occurs in a modern block of tiny flats in South East London, and— like several recent Bush plays — it is mainly about adolescence. In particular, Beautiful Thing is a story of homosexual love between two teenage boys in next door flats, but its most touching achievement is the gradual, oblique, funny, rounded way that it leads up to this. These boys are just the youngest of the play’s five characters. What happens between them is affecting because you have come to know them in context.

Jamie lives with his mother, Sandra, a barmaid currently dating Tony, the latest in a line of boy-friends. Ste (the boy next door) lives with his brother and their violent father, who frequently beats him. Jamie’s other next door neighbour, Leali, is another teenager who leads a life of cheerful boredom only lit up by her obsession with the life and songs of the late Mama Cass. The walls are like paper. The play catches, very surely, the numerous tolerances and intolerances that are the fabric of daily life on any housing estate.

Jamie and Ste, who are the only characters who seem fully rounded from the very start here, are excellently played by Mark Letheren and Jonny Lee Miller. Body language,

mastery of accent, facial expressions: all these are used with such psychological accuracy that you hang on every tiny event as if it were part of a thriller. (Just watch how often both boys avoid looking each other straight in the eye in Act One; and how naturally they do so in Act Two.)

There are weaknesses. The end, big, charmingly sentimental, is too rose-tinted. There could be yet more tension — and, later, more release — between Jamie and his mother Sandra (Patricia Kerrigan); their big fight is too obviously choreographed. Both Sandra and Leah look at first like comedy-cartoon “types” (sassy, quarrelsome, outspoken cockneys), but it is part of Harvey’s skill — part of his point — is that they turn out to be as complex and troubled as Jamie and Ste.

Interestingly, Kerrigan’s acting gets more relaxed as her part grows larger; but Sophie Stanton, who acts Leah exactly as she acted in the Bush’s last play, cannot handle the element of despairing escapism that becomes more startling as the play progresses. But the director, Hettie Macdonald, has brought out so much truth from Harvey’s play that any passing flaws are but shadows. Like most of those about me, I followed the action with my heart in my throat — and, while applauding blinked back the odd tear.

Patricia Kerrigan

It's an exquisite and joyous portrayal of teenage life. Hettie Macdonald ‘s Beautiful Things at the Bush

The urban fairytale

Lyn Gardner

ON A THAMESMEAD housing estate three teenagers are edging hesitantly to wards adulthood. Leah, thrown out of school and feeling that at 15 she is already on the scrapheap, takes refuge in the music of the Mantas and Papas and dreams of being Mama Cass, oblivious of the singers unfortunate end on a chicken sandwich.

Jamie, quiet and self-contained. starts to forge his own identity in the face of his single mum’s dominant personality whereas the motherless Ste. who is being physically and mentally terrorised by his drunken father and elder brother, throws himself into vigorous sports training to avoid dealing with the pain of his everyday life.

The golden cherub perched cheekily over the exit sign sets the tone for Jonathan Harvey’s beautifully acted, deliciously up-beat rites of passage comedy, directed with an insouciant charm by Hettie Macdonald.

Leah, Jamie and Ste’s lives may initially appear as dead end as the high rise walkway on which they live, but this is no urban nightmare, but rather an urban fairytale in which love really does change everything.

Ste, once again seeking sanctuary from his father’s beatings goes to Jamie's house overnight and finds himself persuaded by the more confident Jamie to abandon their top-to-toe sleeping arrangement for something more companionable. The boys’ first tentative, tender sexual encounter takes place to the strains of You Are 16 Going On 17 as Jamie’s mother watches a re-run of The Sound of Music on Sky.

This fragile first love has a knock-on effect: Jamie’s barmaid mum, Sandra, both mellows and strengthens, accepting her son’s growing maturity, ditching her harmless but hopelessly hippy-dippy boyfriend and looking forward to making a new life for herself.

Even difficult, prickly Leah. after a bad trip, begins to engage with the possibilities of the real world rather than withdrawing into the headphones of her Walkman. It is as if the characters have all been touched by the generosity of love, which makes them see the world through fresh eyes.

A fantasy, of course, and one which in less capable hands would come across as sugary humbug, but Harvey crafts his play with astonishing maturity and grounds the drama in a tangible sense of reality. He draws his characters with such a delicate detail that when the fantasy takes flight the audience is more than ready for take off.

The cynical will argue that life just isn’t like that. That Leah, Jamie and Ste are classic text book “victims” whose byes will end in unhappiness and unfulfilled dreams not a long, slow, comfortable snog in the warm sunshine to the sweet sound of the Mamas and the Papas.

But seldom has there been a play which so exquisitely and joyously depicts what it’s like to be 16, in the first flush of love and full of optimism. Truly, a most unusual and beautiful thing.