Set in South East London, Beautiful Thing revolves around five characters living on a council estate. Fifteen year old Jamie (Lee Simmonds) lives with his erratic mother Sandra (Emelye Moulton) and her latest in a long string of boyfriends, Tony (Callum Coghlan). Their endlessly infuriating next door neighbour is Leah (Francesca Amewudah-Rivers), who has been kicked out of school and instead spends her days lounging around and listening to Cass Elliot records. Across the hall, Ste (Chris Dodsworth) lives with his abusive father. The situation eventually gets so bad that he starts to spend the night top-and-tailing with Jamie, but this soon starts to develop into something much more than a friendship.
I was shown the first act of the play, which swiftly draws its audience into the characters’ lives. The in-the-round staging echoes the play’s microscopic examination of its characters, and is used imaginatively and effectively by Isobel Hambleton and Daisy Collarile to create tableaus with the actors which I could almost picture as a photograph series, as well as complementing the naturalistic feel of the play. I also imagine Hambleton’s directing will work well in the Pilch, and the black box theatre seems to be an excellent choice of space for a play which relies on the strength of the bonds between its characters rather than any sorts of bells and whistles with the set.
The touching nature of the domestic relationships is excellently portrayed, and all of the characters are depicted with nuance and care. A particular standout is Simmonds, whose expressiveness and broad emotional palette bring depth to a complex character wrestling with his identity. He provides thoughtfulness and sensitivity without excessive angst. Amewudah-Rivers and Simmonds also play beautifully off each other, recreating all the humour and freshness of young adults.
Leah and Jamie’s relationship feels vibrant, the quick fire dialogue between them echoing typical fifteen year old chatter. Dodsworth as Ste portrays a wonderful mix of teenage swagger and vulnerability. Although the romance between Ste and Jamie was only just starting out in the section I was shown, the naivety and fire of an adolescent love affair was brought out well, and I could tell this would blossom beautifully in the second half of the play. The delicacy with which their relationship unfolds is delightful to watch, and has been handled well by both Hambleton and the cast.
Simmonds and Moulton should also be commended for drawing out the complexities of Jamie and Sandra’s relationship. Moulton’s portrayal of a mother who is simultaneously trying to act as a mature adult figure for her teenage son and also enjoy her life on her own terms comes to blows with Simmonds’ Jamie, who is trying to forge his own path in struggling to find his identity. The depth of the love which the two of them have for each other is clearly visible, even in moments when they become physically violent. Contrasted with Jamie and Tony’s awkward, fumbling conversations as step dad and son, played for good comic effect by Simmonds and Coghlan, their intense relationship is both touching and turbulent without being over-dramatic, and feels very authentic.
Beautiful Thing brilliantly captures a microcosm of London life, encapsulating the feeling of the domestic situation being magnified and set against a backdrop of a much bigger society. The tender yet volatile nature of family dynamics and teenage relationships is excellently brought out. Moments of sensitivity are set off by brilliant flashes of comedy, refusing cliché or melodrama to create a highly enjoyable piece of theatre.