Performance Run: Monday 30 March - Saturday 11 April 2015

Performance Reviewed: Tuesday 31 March 2015 (Press Night)

“Once I believed that when love came to me,

It would come with rockets, bells and poetry,

But with me and you it just started quietly and grew”

So sang the late, great Mama Cass Elliot in her seminal hit ‘It’s getting better’, which rings out at the opening of Beautiful Thing and offers a knowing wink at the tender, understated love story to come. Championed and heralded as being first and foremost a ‘Gay Love Story’, and based on the original mid-90’s stage show and subsequent 1996 cult film adaptation, Beautiful Thing is in many ways a more rounded and nuanced piece than such strapline simplicity would have you believe. There’s no overt agenda or socio-political schmaltz, no microcosmic treatise on the woes of 1990’s gaydom - but simply a tender, delicate, nuanced look at two people becoming drawn together in as much as being kindred spirits as lovers. They just happen to both be male.

Yes, at a time where the gay community seems defined by their Grindr profiles, pigeonholed into tropes or where Russell T. Davies and his recent Cucumber/Banana/Tofu misfires attempt to categorically represent an entire slice of society, it’s wholly refreshing to take a brief leap back in time to Beautiful Thing and experience a show which acquits itself of any pretence or commentary and instead tells a very simple, effective story of two young men falling in love. Whilst it may circle and touch upon the prejudices and concerns of the time here and there, and, of course, the ever-customary HIV/AID’s reference or two (though particularly fitting given the era, when scaremongering was at its apex), Beautiful Thing does not lean on any of this to lend itself gravitas or weight.

Rather, a handful of distinctive, colourful and wholly engaging characters do just that - grounding us in early 90’s South London, and taking us on a at-times touching, humorous and undeniably heartfelt journey of discovery and acceptance. And as lofty as that may sound, it’s all incredibly understated and gradual, and buoyed by plenty of levity and comedy throughout. Fiery young mum Sandra (Eastenders’ Charlie Brooks) lives in a London high-rise with15 year old son Jamie (Sam Jackson). Their neighbours include extrovert school drop-out and Mama Cass fanatic Leah (Vanessa Babirye) and Jamie’s schoolmate - sporty young Ste (Thomas Law), who is regularly subject to the violent whims of his drunken father and brother. Sandra, meanwhile, has been attempting to introduce new ‘fella’ Tony (Gerard McCarthy) into their lives, only he’s something of an awkward wet lettuce.

As the day-to-day minutiae of football kick-abouts, alcohol-abetted sunbathing and the general living of life proceeds, Beautiful Thing takes its tentative steps in bringing it’s two young leads together. Jamie, labelled ‘weird’ by his own mom, is a sensitive and introspective soul, whilst Ste similarly is an island amongst the boorish, thuggish antics of his family. As they broker common ground, and a series of brilliantly pitched one on one sequences in Jamie’s bedroom take place, the two begin to discover and explore not just their sexuality, but seemingly themselves. Their curiosity is piqued at just the right side of innocence, yet over the course of the show the pair believably and gradually ‘come out’ of their shells, to pardon an obvious pun. There are no grand soliloquies or overt high drama, but again a touching, impressively nuanced and organic quality to the development that just feels all the more real

Of course, great credit for the authenticity and charm of this must go to the cast of this current touring production. Beautiful Thing always has the backbone of it’s naturalistic, witty book by Jonathan Harvey, but much of the show rests on the shoulders of whoever plays Jamie, Ste and Sandra. Thomas Law and Sam Jackson tread the material masterfully, both full of ticks and whistles that completely sell them as awkward, frustrated teenagers, but come the pivotal moments of their story, they create a palpable, and indeed quite moving, bond between their two characters that is instantly endearing, and one that becomes impossible to not find yourself rooting for. 

Charlie Brooks, meanwhile, is quite terrific as brash, complicated Sandra, a ‘fighter’ who is all sass-mouthing, putdowns, sexual frisson and bravura to mask a heart of gold. Brooks should be particularly commended for drawing so much comedy out of the role, and distancing her performance so completely from her Eastenders mega-bitch Janine - she’s genuinely funny throughout, and a real bombastic presence - truly, the stage comes to feel a touch empty without her - yet she also completely sells the more heightened and emotional moments of Act II in particular. Vanessa Babirye, meanwhile, is similarly worth of laughs as the slightly unhinged Leah, Babirye showcasing some exceptional comic timing and conviction, and bouncing off of Brooks’ barbs with particular relish. The pair’s frequent back and forth’s are some of the show’s real highlights. The only stumble in the cast seems to be Gerard McCarthy, who puts in a perfectly fine performance, but one whose intent and execution don’t quite harmonise, with many of the characters awkward moments registering with the audience as, well… awkward. 

Beautiful Thing is, in the end, a love story after all. Yet not just one between it’s two young lovers - there is the love of a mother, the bond between friends, and even the tricky navigation between two new partners in Sandra and Tony. Director Nikolai Foster and his cast present a reserved, understated, yet thoroughly absorbing and entertaining exploration of Jonathan Harvey’s tale of a group of people ultimately trying to find themselves, each other and their place in the world. One could almost label it theatre vérité, such is its tentative, observational nature - even with the barnstorming central performance by Brooks. In all, go in expecting a delicate, touching and uplifting fable on love, life and acceptance and you will see why over 20 years later, this is a show that remains as relevant and beautiful a thing as ever.


RATING - ★★★★


BEAUTIFUL THING is running at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Monday 30 March to Saturday 11 April 2015.

CLICK HERE for more information on the show's run at the Hippodrome and to book your tickets!
Alternatively, call Ticket Sales directly on 0844 338 5000 now to book your tickets!

For more news, updates and exclusive content, be sure to follow Kyle on Twitter!

Press tickets for this performance of Beautiful Thing were provided courtesy of the Birmingham Hippodrome directly. The author gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.