Thirty years since its premiere, there’s a timeless power to Jonathan Harvey’s seminal queer love story. Set on a south London council estate, ‘Beautiful Thing’ tracks the awkward teenage romance of neighbours Ste and Jamie as they begin to explore their sexuality for the first time. The soul-searching, open conversations that their fizzing new connection brings sting as much today as ever.
Aspects of Harvey’s script do now feel like a beguiling relic of the ’90s. It was written at a time when the age of consent was 21 for gay men, Section 28 had yet to be repealed, and Aids was a threat that loomed large in people’s minds. Fear and secrecy is key to the central relationship. But Harvey’s words celebrate gay love in all its glory and the fact that the play is now something of a period piece does little to erode it.
Harvey’s script, which balances pain and hope in just the right measure, is powered by an ever-present angst. Although they never say it, Ste and Jamie worry that their futures might already be in the gutter.
In Anthony Simpson-Pike’s anniversary production, the fear of violence is always there, crackling, but so is the excitement of early flirtation. Between scenes, the actors dance under Elliot Griggs’s pink lighting hues, and there is a nervous fire to Jamie and Ste’s interactions. Historically the play has attracted some big-name talent ranging from the likes of Jonathan Bailey, Andrew Garfield, Rhys Ifans and Jonny Lee Miller. But Simpson-Pike has moved ‘Beautiful Thing’ on from its white roots, making it a story of Black existence, as well as queerness.
In this production, the cast is Black – apart from Leah, the outwardly tough yet secretly sensitive school drop-out, played with glorious spikiness by Scarlet Rayner. It’s a visible contrast from most other productions, bold and socially inclusive. But it’s a directorial decision doesn't quite match with a text that simply avoids the topic of race entirely. It is still a welcome casting choice for representation – but it is hard not to wish that a line or two could have been added for the characters to have explored their heritage or shared experience as young Black mane as well as their sexuality.
In most respects, though, it still soars, a gay story effortlessly comfortable with itself. Sporty and social Ste (a truly excellent Raphael Akuwudike) tries to bury the pain of living with his alcoholic and abusive father. Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran, meanwhile, gives musical theatre-loving Jamie the air of being wise beyond his years. As their alliance flourishes from a top-and-tailing friendship to a lust explored under the covers, their chemistry makes for a totally believable first experience of endearment and intimacy. The adults – particularly Jamie’s protective mother Sandra – watch their boyishness with a knowing fear.
Written during the summer of 1992, ‘Beautiful Thing’ was inspired by the decade’s debate over the age of gay consent. That’s long settled, but today an optimistic queer romance still feels somewhat radical.
Both a musing on modern queer history and a marker that signifies what is yet to come, this production is quite the beautiful thing.