20 years on from the debut of Liverpool-born Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing and the world seems very different; a world away from Section 28, Erasure and Black Wednesday. The fondness with which the play is regarded and the rapturous applause with which it was greeted at the Liverpool Playhouse indicate its enduring appeal and its importance in the early 90s.
As director Nikolai Foster remarks, it’s refreshing to see a gay play that doesn’t result in an AIDS-related death or self-destructive hedonism, and that’s where Beautiful Thing’s charm lies. It’s innocent, awkward and thoroughly-believable – pitched as as urban fairytale that brings to mind Queer As Folk, with its slightly hyper-real idiom.
Yet Beautiful Thing lacks the guts of Russell T Davies’ seminal TV serial: while Jonathan Harvey’s play is essentially a love story it could do with a little more emotional ballast – and its characters are alarmingly one-note in places. Suranne Jones is convincing as brassy tart-with-a-heart Sandra, but it’s a role that veers close to Peggy Mitchell territory at times when Beautiful Thing is most reminiscent of a broad 80s sitcom.
There are hints of something more complicated in Sandra’s relationship with gay son Jamie, but once raised it’s rather brushed away. Similarly her lusty relationship with arty idiot Tony – a fundamentally decent sort who seems to be treated with contempt by everyone in the play – dissipates into nothingness, so much so that his very existence in Beautiful Thing is bemusing.
More convincing are the machine-gun insults that Sandra exchanges with Jamie’s mate, Mama Cass-loving, shiftless urchin Leah; there’s a similarity between the two that both recognise and it lends believability to their interplay.
At the heart of it all, however, is the relationship between Jamie and Ste, the simple soul next door; their gauche, tender and funny romance brought to life by lovely performances from Jake Davies and Danny-Boy Hatchard particularly.
The story of the pair’s awakening is hugely touching and funny and the other characters revolve, somewhat less convincingly, around them. This new production is good fun, but its impact seems a little diminished in light of two decades of Davies’ and Paul Abbott’s working-class mise-en-scene.
In light of the progress, in which it arguably had a hand, of the last 20 years – and the adoption of these themes and tones in much modern television – Beautiful Thing is rather quaint, nostalgic even. It doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, but the resonance Harvey’s play once had seems rather dimmed.
Until 1 June