Tobacco Factory Theatres in Association with The Dukes Lancaster
Tuesday 16 October 2018 at 19.00pm
Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, currently playing at Tobacco Factory Theatres, made me think back to being in secondary school in 1993. There was nobody at my school who identified as gay. In reality, there would have been, but nobody would have dared to stick their head above that parapet and admitted it at the time. They would have been bullied mercilessly. Although for balance, when it was suspected a girl in the year above had been having sex with her boyfriend, she was branded a slapper whether she had or not.
Secondary school was brutal in the nineties whether you were fat, thin, popular, unpopular, too tall, too short, wore the wrong clothes, wore the right clothes, the list is endless. But being gay was the place that nobody ever went to. This was the exact world perfectly recreated at the Tobacco Factory Theatres last night.
But whilst equality was grim back in 1993, I can still remember our confusion at Section 28. And it simply didn’t make sense to us that gay men had to be aged 21 to have sex, despite heterosexual people being lawfully able to bang away at 16. It was the early chink of logic in a generation who had also been terrorised by the Aids Public Information Film and a lifetime of brainwashed homophobia. This was the time that Jonathan Harvey’s play was first performed and 2018 is its 25th anniversary. It’s a timeless yet modern fairytale.
Mike Tweddle’s direction alongside genius casting brought back that 1993 world with a bang. The way it encapsulates council block living and the well-observed characters is also spot on.
The play is set on the Thamesmead Estate, and whilst this production retains this setting with authenticity, there is also that feeling that this could be taking place on any estate anywhere in the country. This could be Bristol. In fact, it felt distinctly Bristol in style. It felt Old Bristol, a melting pot of diverse backgrounds in tight-knit communities. It reminded me of growing up in a council house in East Bristol before gentrification put house prices up £300,000.
Although the play is of its time, in other ways, it’s timeless. It’s about acceptance and that’s a theme that is still pertinent. Gender and sexuality may be a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010, but when Pride comes around each year, Facebook still teems with homophobic comments. The default is still white, straight man and gay people still get beaten up in Britain, they still get attacked and they still get harassed for being gay.
Fifteen-year-old Jamie, lives with his single mum Sandra. He’s friends with neighbour and school friend Ste, who is beaten and neglected by his alcoholic father. He’s also friends with sassy neighbour and Mama Cass fan Leah, who has been expelled from school because of ‘The System’. Jamie struggles with building relationships with his mother’s boyfriends who seem to flit in and out of his life. Super laid-back, weed-smoking, patience of a saint Tony is the latest one.
Whilst Jamie hides his sexuality, his difference is apparent to his classmates at school. When Ste ends up staying over one night to escape his abusive father, the bed sharing eventually leads to the first stirrings of a relationship.
Lending weight to the four characters in the play is a Community Choir, who make up the estate residents in the background like a band of troubadours. It gave us a real sense of the community behind the story, also lending charm, quirk and energy .
The play is about first love and though that relationship is a gay one, this is not just a play for gay people. The play is also about relationships. Relationships between children and their parents, relationships with neighbours and the relationships within the community and how individuality and sexuality forms part of those perceptions.
Phoebe Thomas was incredible as the rough around the edges single mother of Jamie. She has dreams too. She’s proud of the flower basket award she’s won and aims to run her own pub. She’s loud, she’s brash, but she loves her son and her disappointment comes from Jamie’s lack of honesty and her fears are about how the community will react to him.
The clever play knits together moments of tenderness, love, drama and some hard to watch moments. This is all carefully woven together with clever direction.
Amy-Leigh Hickman already has a proven ability on TV dramas for giving life to witty, sometimes confused, strong and quite loud female characters. As a stage debut, this was a tremendous one. There was nothing two dimensional about her portrayal of difficult teen Leah. Harvey doesn’t wrap up any of the characters in Beautiful Thing into a solid happy ever after, least of all Leah. She is still failing at education at the end of the story, but that is a reality for many teens from difficult backgrounds. Of course, the mouth she gives is all defence and the casting against Phoebe Thomas’ Sandra is perfect.
Ted Reilly as Jamie encompassed vulnerable, sensitive and difference. It’s a believable friendship with Tristan Waterson as Ste, and between them, they create that awkward atmosphere of two individuals making the first wobbly steps from friendship to relationship.
Finn Hanlon created a Tony that felt a perfect fit for the family, which made it a sad moment when Sandra dumps him with a bin bag of rubbish for the chute. We all felt his confusion and pain.
Beautiful Thing is often described as a feel-good play. As a gay love story in 1993 it would have been a breakthrough. This show has a warm finale, enhanced by the wonderful Community Choir and is effective in its light ending. That’s a real accomplishment considering this is a story peppered with strong swearwords, drug taking and physical abuse. The balance of humour and drama is perfect and overall, it feels very real.
It’s delightful being able to find homegrown theatre as good as this in Bristol. Tobacco Factory Theatres consistently proves itself as the best creator of theatre in the city. It entertains with high quality production but also respects, embraces and includes the community around it and that makes this entire production a very beautiful thing.
Beautiful Thing is at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 27 October 2018