Beautiful Thing review and star rating: ★★★★
It’s a dangerous game, hauling up relics from the past and refashioning them for contemporary tastes, especially when the subject matter is this sensitive and ever-changing. Beautiful Thing was a 1993 play that was adapted for the screen in 1996 about two teenage boys who fell for one another. To state the blindingly obvious, conversations about queer love have come on a long way since then. But Beautiful Thing has a simmering contemporary resonance thirty years on from its premiere.
It’s a subtly sweet story about gay love that must have felt staggeringly progressive in its day. Unlike most LGBTQ theatre of its time, Beautiful Thing avoids talking about AIDS, and the thousands of deaths that were still occurring in 1993 before proper medication came out, and examines a tender relationship between two men.
Today, theatre makers are still asking why more writing like this doesn’t exist. Simple shows about queer people living their lives. The genius is that for two hours, essentially very little happens. We’re hanging out on the doorsteps of Ste and Jamie’s home in a working class area of south London, where they sit every day. Jamie lives with his mum and Ste with his occasionally aggressive dad. In fact, aggression looms over the street; although neither men like it, the language of violence has become inherent in their thinking. Both are bullied, Ste at home and Jamie at school.
We get a picture of queer intimacy that feels validating today – it must have felt properly rule-breaking then
Jonathan Harvey, who also wrote Gimme Gimme Gimme, has created an ultra lifelike world in which these two men and their confusion can jump from the stage. Their homes, like for many queer people, become places of threat: they are forced to be here but exist in coded languages while they remain in the closet. We’re excited by the idea that the duo can turn to one another for salvation.
On the surface, it’s cleverly light-hearted. Sometimes, hilariously, the more traditionally masculine Ste tries to teach Jamie how to play football, at other times the more outwardly queer Jamie confidently asks his mum to tape The Sound of Music rerun that’s on the TV. The funny, quick language holds up today.
It’s offset by some shocking violence, and the eventual tenderness, which although well staged feels slightly rushed, and could have been extrapolated over another three or four times, as the fun is always in the anticipation of two people getting together more than it is in the actual reality of it. But by the second act, we get a picture of queer intimacy that feels validating today – it must have felt properly rule-breaking then.
It is held together by a brilliant cast, not least Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran, who stepped into the role of Jamie at the last minute and has somehow cooked up delicious chemistry with Raphael Akuwudike who plays Ste. And it was a brilliant move to bring a black cast to this formerly white story.
We’re all talking about how progressive Netflix’s 2023 hit Heartstopper is for telling a story about two queer teens who fall in love and find joy, not misery or mental anguish – well, hate to ruin it for you, but Beautiful Thing, a subtly powerful ode to queer love, had similar ideas thirty years before.
Beautiful Thing runs at Stratford East until 7 October, www.stratfordeast.com. It will then run at Leeds Playhouse from 18 – 28 October, www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk and HOME Manchester from 31 October 11 November, www.homemcr.org.