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Review of Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey at Above The Stag Theatre

Beautiful Thing: Credit PBGSTUDIOS
Beautiful Thing: Credit PBGSTUDIOS

If you ever want to wind up a twenty-something, then the best thing to do is let them know how close they are to being a quarter of a century old. Twenty-five years is, in the life of a person, not that long at all, but in the lifetime of a play, the twenty-fifth anniversary is a perfect opportunity to give it a spectacular revival, and that is exactly what the team at the Above the Stag Theatre have done with their new production of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing.

On a typical post world-war Thamesmead council estate in South East London, there are three flats next to each other at the end of one of the walkways, From the outside, these are nothing special, looking exactly like the rest of the building and the estate that surrounds them. But inside, there is a seething mass of stories and emotions ready to be let loose. In the first, there is Leah (Phoebe Vigor) a young girl, recently expelled from school, who spends her days listening to music by “Mama” Cass Elliot, and back-chatting her neighbours. The object of most of Leah’s ire is single mum Sandra (Kyla Frye) who shares her flat with her fifteen-year-old son Jamie (Joshua Asare) and the occasional man she may have in tow – currently, that spot is occupied by posh boy turned neo-hippy Tony (Kieran Mortell). Finally, in the last flat of all, is sixteen-year-old Ste (Ryan Anderson) who lives with his alcoholic father and drug dealing brother, both of whom prefer to let their fists do the talking when it comes to the youngest member of the family. In a location like this, everyone knows everyone else’s business and secrets are impossible to keep or are they? At least one of the residents of this normal council estate is hiding a huge secret and when it ‘comes out’, it changes the lives of everyone forever.

Beautiful Thing is one of those plays where the name does exactly what it says on the tin. Jonathan Harvey has written a play that despite its location and, at times obnoxious characters, really is a beautiful story of young love blossoming like a rose among the weeds. There is a lot of humour in the prose and the five characters are really tied up with each other superbly, leading to some wonderful verbal sparring, particularly between Sandra and Leah. Backing up the great story are five exceptional actors all of whom seem to be perfectly cast in their respective roles. Even the character of Tony, who I’ve never really understood before, makes sense in Kieran’s expert hands. Phoebe Vigor is wonderful as Leah who, on the surface, is all attitude and bravado but underneath displays a real vulnerability that she escapes in the music of one of the earliest power divas. Equally, Kyla Frye’s portrayal of Sandra is a pleasure to watch, as she brings this vibrant, loud-mouthed, but with a heart of gold, woman to life.

Like so many mothers in her situation, Sandra may have given up much to devote her life to Jamie, but she is still her own person and it is a stupid man that tries to ‘look after’ or patronise her – the main reason her and Tony’s romance is doomed from the start in my opinion. Kyla brings all these facets to Sandra’s personality perfectly and still has enough to enable her to show her own vulnerable side. Finally, moving to the two boys and the magnificent job done by Ryan and Joshua as Ste and Jamie respectively. Both actors bring off the south-east London teenage persona in different by highly complementary ways. Ste, on the surface a typical lad, ashamed for crying after suffering another beating at the hands of his family and Jamie, a sensitive boy who dislikes sports and is unsure of his place in the world. The two of them are very different but together there is a real chemistry that is the result of the great writing and excellent acting.

There really is nothing to fault production wise in this show. David Shields has created a set that is so reminiscent of the walkways common to these types of flats that you feel he could have been an architect. My one really minor gripe was that Canary Wharf on the backdrop looked, to my mind, slightly larger than I would expect it to appear from Thamesmead. However, that may be a moot point and the rest of the set was perfect, especially the way Jamie’s bedroom was created. Steven Dexter’s directing was spot on and with Mama Cass’ back catalogue to choose from, Andy Hill couldn’t possibly go wrong with the sound design.

The first version of Beautiful Thing I saw was the movie and I was completely entranced by the wonderful gentleness and positivity of the story. Then in 2013, I saw the stage version at the Arts theatre and this took my appreciation to a new level. But I have to say, this latest version of the play, in the new above the Stag Theatre building, is now the yardstick against which all other productions will need to be measured. As we left the theatre, I asked my companion, Michael, if he would have given the show 5 stars. His answer, ‘can’t you give it more?’ I can’t but I understand exactly where he is coming from. The show is on until the 29th June so there is still time to book a ticket and treat yourself to a truly fantastic evening at the theatre.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

Beautiful Thing is a heart-melting story about teenage love blooming on a Thamesmead council estate. Jamie is secretly in love with his sporty and more sociable schoolmate, Ste. When Ste is badly beaten up by his violent father and brother, Jamie and his mum offer Ste a place to stay. But they don’t have a spare bedroom – or bed.

With hilariously memorable supporting characters and a summery soundtrack of Mama Cass songs, Beautiful Thing is a tender and optimistic play about two damaged boys and the love that heals them. Since premiering at the Bush Theatre in 1993, Beautiful Thing has established itself as a modern classic, and was made into a much-loved, groundbreaking film.

Director: Steven Dexter
Designer: David Shields
Lighting designer: Jack Weir
Casting: Harry Blumenau for Debbie O’Brien Casting
Producer: Peter Bull for Above The Stag Theatre

Beautiful Thing
by Jonathan Harvey
25th Anniversary production

Above The Stag Theatre, Vauxhall
72 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7TP

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