Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, first performed in 1993, depicts the coming-of-age of two teenage boys, Ste and Jamie, in Thatcher’s Britain and against the backdrop of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As we begin to mark LGBTQ+ History Month, audiences would do well to remember that, over a decade after its premiere, Section 28 of the Local Government Act, forbidding “the teaching […] of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”, was still in force.
Watching the trailer for this most recent of Ruckus Productions’ runs left me, quite frankly, bemused. Knowing what I did about Jonathan Harvey’s original, I believed the acting, which seemed stilted, and the music, whose relevance I was unable to decipher, to be somewhat dissonant to the plot and the play’s themes. Whether or not it was the intention of the creative team to lead potential audience members down the garden path, so to speak, what is on offer to theatregoers at the Michael Pilch Studio for the next two nights is anything but dissonant.
Scenes of fizzing, mightily comic dialogue are interspersed with more intimate, serious ones. Opting for minimalist staging allows for freedom of movement, but also intensifies moments of awkwardness, particularly in the bedroom. Subtle lighting choices, overseen by Nandana Syam and Sophia Mara Buck, serve to clarify the mood in different scenes, whilst Niamh Calway’s shrewd sound design adds an extra layer to the production. The music that punctuates each scene, in particular the refrain that ‘you’ve got to make your own kind of music, sing your own special song’, reiterates the play’s unashamedly optimistic message, before contributing to its rousing finale. Aural symbolism aside, Chloe Doootson-Graube’s costume choices for Ste and Jamie, in contrast to the rest of the cast, are telling.
Potential abounds in Emelye Moulton and Callum Coghlan; the former’s portrayal of a sassy single parent trying to do right by her son whilst maintaining a sense of personal ambition and coming to terms with what his sexuality might mean for him, results in the frequent verbal and occasional physical outburst, delivered convincingly, whilst the latter’s faultless timing and stage presence convey Tony’s status as a dreamy and inexperienced lover and father figure. Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, whose ability was confirmed in last year’s random, is compelling as the school dropout Leah, at times sharp-tongued and at others caring, whilst Chris Dodsworth gives a strong performance as a character struggling to come to terms with his true self in such a toxically masculine household.
Those familiar with the 1996 film adaptation will soon detect the absence of Trevor and Ronnie Pearce, Ste’s brother and father respectively. However, in keeping with Harvey’s original play, Hambleton’s assured direction of Dodsworth, through whose movement and vocal urgency we discern the violence that takes place behind closed doors, renders this a nonproblem. The standout performance, however, is that of Lee Simmonds. Besides his excellent body language and timing, he carves out the intricacies of the part superbly.
Though I was impressed with the production as a whole, the best scenes are ones which feature all of the characters; it is in these scenes that it is most evident that the cast has enjoyed rehearsals as, throughout, there are wonderfully dynamic interactions, which provoke a lot of laughter. In staging this tender, thoughtful and timeless coming-of-age drama, Ruckus Productions has certainly made some noise, and for all the right reasons.