Beautiful Thing at Theatre Royal Stratford East
Close yet hidden away from the more chaotic and dystopian heart of Stratford, the Theatre Royal Stratford East is a safe refuge for those who have a penchant for the classic, warm charm that only smaller venues can offer. It also helps, adding to the feelings of warmth, when the show in question is as delightful as this 30th-anniversary revival of Jonathan Harvey’s award-winning play Beautiful Thing.
With the 1996 film adaptation being something of a cult classic within the LGBTQ+ community, this new production, directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike, has all the ingredients necessary to be just as memorable: a beating heart, wicked humour and an amazing soundtrack that will be a nostalgia bath for many. Simpson-Pike’s version also departs from the original in the most meaningful and clever way: his version is told through a Black queer lens, allowing many young men to see themselves being represented in a story that ends in joy instead of tragedy.
The characters are incredibly well-rounded and believable in all their little quirks and idiosyncrasies. Sports-averse Jamie (Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran) and athletic Ste (Raphael Akuwudike) are the two protagonists navigating the dangerous and difficult years of adolescence, sharing their wins and losses with the other members of their little community in the South London Estate: troublemaker neighbour Leah (Scarlett Rayner), Jamie’s sharp-tongued mum, Sandra (Shvorne Marks), and Sandra’s new boyfriend, Tony (Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge). Ste’s abusive father and brother never make an appearance, dominating the boy’s life from the shadows. The abuse forces him out of the house, seeking refuge at his neighbours’ – Sandra welcomes him, and he and Jamie start sharing the latter’s bed. Eventually, their friendship evolves into something else, as they lean into their newly discovered feelings for each other.
Even though every character is brilliantly portrayed, Shvorne Marks as Sandra deserves a special mention. Marks perfectly captures the mother’s indomitable spirit, quick wit and strong desire to create a fulfilling life for herself and her son. Her personality shines through every single little detail: from the door of their house being painted a different colour – a lovely pale blue – to the flower basket (awarded to Sandra) hanging outside their door. This pop of colour – one of the few within the concrete estate – speaks volumes of Sandra and her desire to find beauty and something to hold onto in her everyday life, despite all the struggles and all the loss.
Incredibly funny and entertaining, it is impossible to leave the theatre not smiling or humming along to Dream a Little Dream of Me. The happy and joyful ending, particularly in a love story between two young Black men, is nothing short of revolutionary.
Beautiful Thing is at Theatre Royal Stratford East from 8th September until 7th October 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.