As 20-somethings, Johnny and I had both loved and owned copies of the 1996 cult film Beautiful Thing, so we walked into the Tobacco Factory Theatre all but singing songs by Mama Cass, the artist heavily featured in that film. But, although it is based on the screenplay by Jonathon Harvey, neither of us had ever seen the stage version.
TFT ‘s Artistic Director Mike Tweedle is back in the production seat: choosing to present this in the round (hurrah!), he has used the 25 strong Bristol Community Choir as the crowd, who sing collectively a soundtrack of 1990s’ pop (with the exception of a couple of inevitable Mama Cass numbers) and I won’t spoil the surprises here. One of the hits is particularly brilliantly done and somewhat unexpected. The Choir wear garish clothes from the decade – I swear to you that not all of us dressed so diabolically in the 90s – as they punctuate this story of friendship blossoming into love that’s being played out on the stage, helping to make these 2 hours a fun, heart-warming and gorgeous experience.
In 1993, Beautiful Thing was up against it. This was an era when Section 28 made it illegal to tell kids about homosexuality in schools and the fear and mistrust of AIDS shone an unfavourable spotlight on gay men. So a film about two teenagers discovering their homosexuality was a necessary risk. In today’s climate, the attitudes of 25 years or so ago are rightly seen as Draconian – 15 year old Jamie is bullied for not liking football and for being ‘weird’. His single mum, feisty Sandra, spends her time working towards owning her own pub and having slanging matches with gobby young neighbour Leah. Tough as old boots Leah is Jamie’s pal but his real interest lies in classmate and next door neighbour Ste, a lad being at best neglected and at worst abused by his male only family. All this in a block of flats in Thamesmead, South East London.
Sounds grim, dunnit?
Beautiful Thing is anything but.
Despite the tough love doled out by Sandra to her son and the endless bitching between the two females, this is a uplifting tale of hope, maybe almost against the odds. Ted Reilly of EastEnders fame plays Jamie with an innocence being shaken off – this a boy who still needs his mum but who is attracted to the popular and sporty Ste – an impressive stage debut here by Tristan Waterson, whose eyes we can almost see (and total feel) being opened. The wonder of it all. Phoebe Thomas is a determined and gritty Sandra whose latest lover, Tony, has all the best lines. Finn Hanlon is hippy Tony and his effortless stoned shrug and his delivery of comforting, laid back words, man, get many of the laughs. And the misunderstood Mama Cass-obsessed Leah, expelled from school, is played by theatre newcomer Amy-Leigh Hickman; the girl is sharp, spitting out abuse and somehow making it fun. Two great debuts in one show!
Harvey’s Beautiful Thing is, in part, a step back in time. It harks to once oft-muttered phrases that have gone out of fashion, social outlooks that are thankfully now unacceptable and clothes that are dated. What is still current, though, are the themes of friendship, family, love.
Expect to come out of the Tobacco Factory Theatre with a warm glow. Beautiful Thing is a thing of beauty. Gay or not, a lover of the film or a BT virgin, everyone will like this. Mike Tweddle has delivered a show for Bristol to be proud of.
Beautiful Thing plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until October 27th
Image by Mark Dawson, with thanks