Tag Archives: Jonathan Harvey

“Beautiful Thing” at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

There is a reverential air to Anthony Simpson-Pike’s revival of Jonathan Harvey’s coming-of-age story. As a celebration of the play’s 30th anniversary, this much-loved piece is determined to please fans… and it succeeds. The romance between young neighbours Ste and Jamie has more optimism and fun than ever, so relax and enjoy.

Simpson-Pike and his cast provide studied performances that are carefully restrained. Raphael Akuwudike and Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran take the lead roles and make a suitably sweet on-stage couple. That both boys are bullied is in the background, with little time taken over potential trauma. Ste’s home life, in particular, seems glossed over, with little sense of threat from how his violent father might react to his sexuality.

Other roles come close to stealing the show. Shvorne Marks plays Jamie’s mother, Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge her boyfriend, and Scarlett Rayner is Leah, who lives next door. All three have excellent comic skills and appreciate that, while Harvey’s characters are larger than life they are not caricatures. The women, both well-written roles, make every eye roll or insult count. It’s all hugely entertaining.

Since most audience members know most of the jokes, the evening has a nostalgic feel. Of course, it is nice that people are no longer shocked by two schoolboys in love (they are all over Netflix, nowadays). But it is tempting to wonder whether updates might have been made. The characters are normally cast as white, and Simpson-Pike has changed this, but I only spotted one reference to the alteration and surely more might have been done?

Instead, there’s an air of celebration and an admirable emphasis on openness that is cleverly brought to life by Rosie Elnile’s fine design. The communal nature of the housing estate setting would warm a 1960s architect’s heart. Having the boys’ bed come out onto the flat’s balcony is a nice, suggestive, touch. And the production’s finale, where Elnile delivers a neat surprise, reminds us how stirring Beautiful Thing is and ensures everyone leaves the theatre happy.

Until 7 October 2023


Photo by The Other Richard

“Beautiful Thing” at the Arts Theatre

Jonathan Harvey’s iconic gay coming-of-age story, Beautiful Thing, celebrates its 20th anniversary with a new production at the Arts Theatre in Covent Garden. Despite some nostalgic nods, the play is as fresh as ever: a skilfully written comedy drama with fantastic roles and an admirably un-patronising focus on working-class life. Beautiful Thing touches on universal themes with a winning bravery.

The huge success of the play, and the subsequent 1996 film, create a special atmosphere with seemingly every audience member knowing every line. The jokes – of which there are plenty – are anticipated gleefully and the roars of laughter almost interrupt the action. Director Nikolai Foster gives the crowd what they want and his staging is a respectful affair. But it’s impressive to note his firm hand, with moments of quiet imposed as the relationship between the two young boys, Ste and Jamie, neighbours on a council estate in Thamesmead, blossoms into romance.

Beautiful Thing - Jake Davies & Suranne Jones - cMike Lidbetter for QNQ Ltd
Suranne Jones and Jake Davies

The superb Suranne Jones as Jamie’s mother shows the piece is as much about parental relationships as anything else. Playing the hard-nosed Sandra with skill, duelling with her neighbour Leah and dealing with her lover Tony (Zaraah Abrahams and Oliver Farnworth – both in fine form), Jones gives a tremendous emotional edge to the role. Through strong performances from Jake Davies and Danny-Boy Hatchard, Jamie and Ste’s shared fears about emotions and the future are presented as those of boys rather than men – an important point central to the play. Harvey’s writing and the skill of the young actors enhance the empathy and humour and ensure sure the play lives up to its title.

Until 25 May 2013

Photos by Mike Lidbetter

Written 18 April 2013 for The London Magazine

“Canary” at Hampstead Theatre

Jonathan Harvey’s Canary is an epic story of gay rights that stretches over 50 years, from imprisonment and aversion ‘therapy’, through political activism and the fear of AIDS, up to the age of celebrity ‘outings’. Harvey knows his subject matter possibly a little too well – analysis is sometimes less than subtle, with action and issues too condensed. Fortunately, he is an entertaining writer who gives us more than a history lesson. He creates an engaging, ambitious story packed with as much drama and humour as it is with politics.

Harvey adopts the sensible device of recounting the history through the life of one man. We begin as Tom, a senior policeman, is about to be exposed as gay by the press and then travel back through his life to see how his decision to remain in the closet affects those close to him. From his betrayal of the men he loves, his marriage and his rejection of his own gay son, we see the long-term repercussions of his lies.

There is a touch of soap opera here and that isn’t meant to sound derogatory. The characters are skilfully crafted so that their part in the story comes to be about them as individuals – no small feat when political issues are involved. They aren’t just symbols but complicated people living through dramatic events. It is often gripping stuff driven by passion and conviction that this politics still matters.

The play is also superbly acted. The younger members of the cast do well to represent what their older selves would have been like years ago. Appropriately, though, in a play that celebrates the achievements of previous activists, it is the older members of the cast who shine. Philip Voss is breathtaking in the variety of roles he has to play. Moving from a wicked impersonation of Mary Whitehouse to standing by his estranged son’s deathbed in a matter of moments. Paula Wilcox is also fantastic playing his wife Ellie. Driven to distraction by her own guilt as well as her husband’s she retreats into fantasy, travelling through time and space and, in between, putting in a splendid Margaret Thatcher impersonation.

The fantastic elements and shifts in time make Harvey’s play highly theatrical. Director Hettie MacDonald deals well with this – actors fly through the air and demonstrate from the audience seats. There is a lot of fun here only slightly let down by a minimal staging that feels as if it consists solely of sofas. The upholstery (and costumes) set the time of the action as well as they can, but some further help might be useful. If the whole thing takes some following, these shifts in time and reality serve well to emphasise the repercussions of events. Scenes when characters look at, or talk to, their younger selves are amongst the most poignant moments in a play bold and powerful enough to have no shortage of them.

Until 12 June 2010


Photo by Helen Warner

Written 23 May 2010 for The London Magazine