Is it wrong to still expect a play about two male teenagers in a South London council estate discovering their homosexual feelings to be a hard-hitting and emotionally draining experience? The changes, both social and legal, that have occurred since 1993 when the play was first put on would suggest so. A play about homosexuality should no more be expected to tell a stereotypical tale than a play about heterosexual relationships should. So it’s encouraging that in Beautiful Thing the University of Sheffield has decided to focus more on the general aspects of first love rather than the controversy of being a gay teenager but in doing so they have unfortunately ended up shooting themselves in the foot with their choice of play.
This production is muddled in what it is trying to portray and for the majority treads a clumsy middle-line between the normality of a homosexual relationship and the avalanche of conflicting feelings that come with it. The fact that Ste is challenged by not only realising his sexuality but also acting on those feelings in the face of very real violence is largely glossed over to make way for the niceties that he and Jamie share. Alex Morgan tries hard to bring out the more timid and fearful sides of the character but when he admits that his father will actually kill him if he finds out he’s gay the other characters are as bleakly unaffected as they are by the escalation in beatings he suffers.
It’s a directorial decision that sucks all of the punch out of the pack and it can be seen in the relationship between Jamie and his mother Sandra as well. Luke Holbrook as Jamie is a convincing 15 year old and gives a fine performance while Lauren Knights as Sandra grasps the mindset and physicality of a 35 year-old single mother well (although there is a certain lack of variation in pitch). However by the end of the play they might as well be where they were at the start. There’s no hint that Sandra may be aware of Jamie’s sexuality so her brief and directorially befuddled anger, tears and complete acceptance come and go in an instant, leaving the audience feeling like they are watching an interpretation of Sisyphus having a bad day.
It’s even more surprising then to see the attempt that went for the lighter side of the script miss so many of the jokes. There’s a hilarious undertone of sexual innuendo running throughout that was either downplayed or ignored by the cast. This was certainly not helped the gaping cavern of the Spa Theatre that sucked up acoustics at will and in a smaller venue there would no doubt have been a more intimate connection with the comedy of the piece.
This production highlights how dated Beautiful Thing is in showing a homosexual relationship in terms of general conceptions of first love, something that could be written nowadays without much controversy but would have been alien 15 years ago. It’s nice to think that theatre has evolved since then.