In 1994, when Beautiful Thing transferred from the Donmar to the Duke of York’s Theatre, I bought a pair of tickets for my sister, as a gift for her birthday. She took her boyfriend. I met them after, expecting post-show joy. To my extreme distress, undiluted homophobia spilled from both parties. The following day, her partner called me at work, threatened me with violence and spat further abuse down the phone at me. A week later, the pair of them drove me from the family home. I left, sobbing, prompting a period of homelessness and a nervous breakdown. My sister dated that man for several years. To this day, the pain of that episode causes heartbreak and family conflict. Beautiful Thing led to a Very Ugly Thing that in 2023 remains unhealed and grimly toxic.
In many ways, Harvey’s brilliant play is a modern fairy tale that gave the gay community a ray of hope in hyper harsh times. Equal age of consent for gay men wasn’t introduced until 2000 and in 1993 was 21. When this show hit the West End, homophobia spewed from the media, fuelled by the AIDS crisis and a Tory government which had introduced Section 28. Beautiful Thing gave us a working-class love story about two teenage boys and blessed us with a happy ending. Not only was it a necessary tonic for a beleaguered section of society, Harvey’s play opened the minds of those who’d never seen two men kiss on stage. It also enraged the truly hateful, as I found out to my cost.
30 years later and the cultural landscape is almost unrecognizable. This revival in Stratford, directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike, keeps the action in 1993, but refreshes the experience by using a largely black cast. Shvorne Marks gives a fierce comic performance as Sandra, Jamie’s mum, but at times, it seems unrealistic that there’s no reference to race. Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993 and not far from the ‘cockney riviera’ in Thamesmead where Beautiful Thing is set. Thanks to the BNP, Southeast London was a cauldron of racial tension at that time and violence was a scary reality for young black boys bunking off school and living on a sprawling council estate.
Perhaps such grim details are best left aside, because essentially, Beautiful Thing was written to lift hearts and bring joy. It’s about laughter and jokes, despite grinding poverty and as Rihanna might say, finding love in a hopeless place. The Theatre Royal in Stratford was giddy with excitement when we attended on Saturday night and the audience were demonstrably there for a good time, not a hard time. Harvey gave us an escapist romance in a rough reality and it’s arguable that’s what young queers might be looking for in 2023.
Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran deserves special credit for skilfully stepping into the role of Jamie at the last minute. Joshua Asaré was forced to drop out just a few days before opening. One can only imagine how challenging this must have been and the entire cast have obviously stepped up and turned it out.
Beautiful Thing rearranged the DNA of theatre when it landed at the Bush in 1993. It will be interesting to see what millennials make of this window onto a world that they’ll never know and possibly can’t imagine.
Reviewer: Stewart Who?
Reviewed: 25th September 2023
North West End UK Rating: