Beautiful Thing (scr. Jonathan Harvey; dir. Nikolai Foster; Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury)
I fell out of love with theatre in my late teens. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before.) A drama teacher — Phil — told his sceptical GCSE drama students that even the worst movie had something to offer and that most theatre was rubbish. Or something like that. I argued for the liveness, the intimacy, the closeness… But Nottingham Playhouse in the 1980s was under the creative thumb of Kenneth Alan Taylor and rather too in love with social realist dramas with Sillitoe, Hines and Russell. The 1980s production of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning — presumably the same script as used in 1964 with Ian McKellen — had an oh-so-amusing line from its Nottingham characters about not going to Nottingham Playhouse until it showed plays about people like them. Phnarr. And then the abortion scene, which should have been horrific, was undercut by the whispering around us about the tin bath that the audience recognised from their own youths. I suspect I’ve averaged one production a year since — despite seeing great things at Scarborough (twenty years ago?), the RSC (hmmm), the National (Arcadia?) and Chichester. I keep meaning to do something about this.
I was convinced I’d seen Beautiful Thing on stage, but I suspect I was thinking of Queer Folk, an appalling Nottingham Playhouse production sold on it being the debut of a visually impaired playwright and which I recall as Queer as F*ck. I don’t know, maybe the posters called it Queer F**k? I saw the Hettie MacDonald 1996 film, on video, one of a cluster of coming of age/coming out films alongside Get Real (Simon Shore, 1999) and Edge of Seventeen (David Moreton, 1998). The film had Linda Henry in the female lead, Sandra, who went onto appear in EastEnders — the role originating with Patricia Kerrigan — and this revival’s original Sandra was Suranne Jones in 2013 (off Corrie) and now is Charlie Brooks, Janine Butcher from EastEnders. It seems to have been turned into a role for soap actors to prove they can act — and she did pull it off, mostly.
The setting is a Thamesmead council estate, late 1980s, early 1990s, where Jamie (Sam Jackson) is dodging games to hang around outside his flat and chat with the excluded, Mama Cass-fixated, Leah (Vanessa Babirye). He is more or less a latch-key kid, his aspiring bar maid mother Sandra working nights, her latest boyfriend Tony (Gerard McCarthy) acting as baby-sitter. Opposite lives sporty Ste (Thomas Law) with his drunken, abusive father and an occasionally mentioned older brother. Locked out after being beaten, Ste begins sleeping top to toe with Jamie, and a tentative secret relationship begins.
In the panopticon of the council estate, nothing is so secret and we are repeatedly told that Jamie and Ste have been subjected to homophobic slurs and bullying. It is the heat of high summer — performed here by a smoke machine that suggests fog or pollution rather than heat ha. Leah and Sandra have defended both boys, unaware that they are gay. Going off to a gay bar in Greenwich — I seem to recall we got to see this in the film — the two are seen and word gets back to Sandra.
Sandra is more put out by not having been told than discovering her son is gay and the hippy boyfriend is cool with it. Leah seems supportive, if thrown, and contemplates exploring her lesbian side. Only Ste’s father seems disagreeable — a role kept off stage. Bob Nowlan suggests that the film version “explicitly takes the form of a ‘fairy tale,’ such that the very climate and landscape depicted in the film appear to resonate with an unnatural sunniness and warmth” (2006, 148). We have the eucatastrophe of the happy ending — the symbolism of the end-of-play dances — which is cathartic. It is a symptom of quite how pervasive the gay gothic becomes that any ending that doesn’t end with one or both lovers dead is unconvincing wish fulfilment.
I can see why the father is offstage. He would have been a pantomime villain, a thankless role. (Compare Cliff’s disapproving sister-in-law in Pride (2014).) But the result is that we are told of the prejudice rather than seeing it. We see the evidence, of course, in the form of convincing bruising, but we focus on the tenderness of what would still be an illegal relationship.
Back in 1993, the age of consent for gay men was 21, reduced to 18 in 1994 and finally to 16 in 2001. Section 28 was still on the statute books and HIV still was something to be feared. Theatre gives us the magical moment of transformation — there was barely a dry eye in the house — of Coming Out, when everything changes, and the public dance is at the heart of gossipy, judgmental Thamesmead. It isn’t that easy. Nowlan writes that it
is not the revelation of a true self, but rather identification with a mode of subjectivity, and with a nexus of attendant discourses and practices that provides this subjectivity its form, content, direction, and purpose. What’s more, “coming out” is not the arrival at a single triumphant moment — it is not a mere instant or event — but rather marks the commitment to an ongoing process of public self-(re)definition. (2006, 153-4)
It is a process of coming out and coming in, of being out to friends but in to family, or out to family, but in to colleagues, of being out in clubs but not on the bus, of being read as out one minute and unknowingly hiding in plain sight the next. Outness is only part of the answer.
Meanwhile, I have my equivalents of the Playhouse tin baths. When was The Guardian redesign with its two font title? I remember Gazza’s tears. I remember E17. Thatcher got a namecheck — I don’t think Major did.I suspect much of the audience — predominately male — would have been only a few years older than Jamie and Ste were when the play first opened. We’ve come a long way in twenty-two years. The central three actors are great and utterly convincing — although I think they corpse at one point and the ingenious set didn’t quite play fair. Tony hovers uneasily between comic relief and the middle class aspirations of Sandra — who is contemplating a move to running her own pub in Rotherhithe. Leah was played well, but I think it’s an underwritten part and her ethnicity is all but invisible. But I think we can lay some of the blame for that at this being an early if not first play and the thought that for once there is a fairy tale ending.
Nowlan, Bob (2006) “The politics of love in three recent U.S. and U.K. films of young gay romance: a symptomatic reading of Beautiful Thing, Get Real, and Edge of Seventeen“,
Journal of Homosexuality, 50(4), pp.141-84 .