Beautiful Thing

By Jonathan Harvey

Director Stephen Heatley Set and Projection Lauchlin Johnston
Lighting Jane Loong Costume Tammy Chan
Sound Patrick Pennefather

Dates 20 -30 September 2006 at 19.30 Venue Frederic Wood Theatre, University of British Columbia

Reviewer Jane Penistan

Jonathan Harvey won his first playwriting award at 19. This English playwright is now well-known in Britain and around the world. Beautiful Thing was originally mounted by the National Theatre in London in 1993, where it sold out its five week run. It also gained the author an Olivier nomination and the John Whiting award. Restricted by Harvey until recently, it has now been released and remounted in London where it again sold out and has been performed in the United States.

Subtitled “An Urban Fairytale,” Beautiful Thing delves into the lives of the residents of a London suburban housing estate. The rundown and vandalised apartments are now the dumping grounds for underprivileged tenants. One flat is occupied by Leah, a provocative teenager, at odds with her mother, another by Jamie, a reluctant high school student and his promiscuous barmaid mother, Sandra. The third houses studious and athletic Stephen and his abusive brother and father. The time is high summer during a prolonged heat wave.

The trials and tribulations of growing up in an impecunious and under educated environment, strained parental relationships and difficult social structures are all problems encountered by five of the tenants of Thamesmead.

In a row of three shabby, graffiti decorated apartment facades, only the centre one is cared for, in that its doorway is adorned with carefully tended hanging baskets of gaily-coloured flowers. This is the home of Sandra and her son Jamie. Sandra is the hard working manager at a local pub, whose son Jamie is a reluctant student at the local high school.

Short-sighted, he also has an aversion to physical games. Leah has been suspended from the local school and is at a loose end, exploring the joys of attracting any member of the opposite sex. Stephen’s father is a short-tempered alcoholic labourer, and his brother, like their father, ready fisted. Tony is Sandra’s current boyfriend, who is presently living with her. He endeavours to help Jamie to be more socially acceptable, but it is Stephen with whom Jamie discusses his problems and between whom there is rapport.

The five student actors all put on stellar performances. Their London accents are well maintained, neither laboured nor conspicuously stressed. As Leah, Olivia Rameau is pretty, seductive, and attractive. Her movement and body language are gracefully executed and her ready wit, mocking comments, and mimicry well timed. Jamie manages his uncertainty, searching, and slow realization of growing maturity convincingly and sympathetically.

For Stephen, his days at school are a relief from the harsh masculinity of his all male home. He is thoughtful and self reliant, hiding his need for affection, compassion and companionship. These needs are recognised by Sandra (Joanna Rannelli), who is maternal and caring. Her need for security drives her to work hard, doing her best to provide for Jamie’s needs. She also offers Stephen a safe refuge from a physically abusive situation. This is a very assured, strongly adult performance. Tony (Evan Frayne) Sandra’s current boyfriend is the grown-up male example of one who is not brutal but kind and thoughtful.

The direction of this production is outstanding. The difficulties of the London dialect and speedy repartee of the humourous witty dialogue are not apparent. The movement of all members of the cast is characteristically right, particularly that of Leah and Sandra. The high standard of acting and speech delivery is one that is seldom found in non-professional stage presentations. The entire cast play together well.

The set and costumes are eminently suitable for the environment and persona of this play. The sound is always appropriate, underlining the script. The well-chosen music is performed with the same intelligence and attention to detail as the dialogue.

On the thrilling, exhilarating first night of Beautiful Thing the audience spontaneously rose to its feet, cheering and applauding. This is the first time I have experienced such enthusiasm at a Freddie Wood opening in twenty years.

© 2006 Jane Penistan