It’s more than twenty years now since the first performance of the ground-breaking play by Jonathan Harvey about two teenagers tentatively coming out on a Thamesmead estate, and the Questors Ealing studio production of Beautiful Thing fully deserves its place alongside the many other productions since its premiere.
This was an excellent account of a play that might easily have seemed dated or even stereotyped, but with director Gary R. Reid at the helm, the audience knew they were in safe hands from the beginning.
It was the 1996 film that introduced many to the story of Jamie and Ste, but the play came first, in 1993, and it’s a short and telling piece of writing, and much funnier than I remembered, with the humour well-managed in this production.
This play is usually cast with actors in the central roles who are slightly older than the characters they portray, and it is a mark of the standard of acting in this production that the audience soon forgot that this Jamie and Ste certainly didn’t look fifteen but actually around the same age as the mother’s boyfriend Tony, supposedly more than ten years older.
The action alternates between the balcony of a row of flats during a heatwave and Jamie’s bedroom, and the design by Fiona McKeon was superb, and complete with telling details such as the state of the door to Ste’s flat.
The transition to the bedroom was neatly achieved and the pull-out bed then centred the action in those scenes much closer to the audience, providing the necessary intimacy. Kudos also to sound, lighting, fight direction and efficient stage management.
In perhaps the most sketchily-written part, Tom Redican gave a good account of Tony, the vaguely hippy boyfriend brought home by Jamie’s mother. Opposite him as Sandra and giving a strong central performance for the others to respond to was Sherralyn Lee. This is a gift of a part, of course, but no easier for that and it would be all too tempting to let it drift into caricature. It did not do so and this was a truthful and perhaps more subtle performance than is sometimes given by actors in this role.
The other female role is neighbour Leah, played here by Ore Sanderson, who coped well with the demands of the part. Leah needs to sing, suffer a bad trip and switch attitudes towards the other characters very quickly, and Sanderson did all this and more with conviction and authority.
As troubled footballer and physical abuse sufferer Ste, Matthew Tyrrell looked too old for the part but his technique overcame this initial reaction and by the end of the evening the truthfulness of his performance won through. A similar level of commitment and sincerity came from Will Langley’s Jamie, which was for me the performance to remember among a very strong cast. Building slowly from a beginning as a typical south London lad, we were gradually shown the vulnerability beneath, and both central actors achieved the difficult task of crying onstage convincingly without provoking an inappropriate response from the audience.
The loud applause from the audience at the end of play was testament to the impression created by this superbly detailed and authoritative account of the play, and it was good to overhear that, as is so often the case with this piece, there were newcomers to theatre present. I hope the full houses continue for the rest of the run.