by Amanda Higgin
It is often said that simple things are beautiful, and this show was certainly a Beautiful Thing.
This straightforward but delicately told story brings its audience to three neighbouring flats in a London council estate. Jamie lives with his mother, Sandra, and her boyfriend, Tony. On one side lives Leah, who has been expelled from school and fills her days by listening to Mama Cass. On the other lives Ste, an at-first unassuming character who likes sport and helps around the house. To escape his violent father, Ste starts sleeping top-to-tail with Jamie; from there, their relationship slowly develops.
Jonathan Harvey’s script is a masterpiece of understated drama, and the cast and crew of Beautiful Thing handle it with sensitivity. Lee Simmonds deserves praise for his performance as Jamie, handling the emotional swings of the drama but also, moreover, delivering the play’s subtle dialogue convincingly. The same can be said for Emelye Moulton as Sandra, whose bold delivery and East-End accent made her a resolute figure for the other actors to respond to. Confident performances from both Simmonds and Moulton made the play not only about two teenagers discovering their feelings for each other, but also about a son and his mother.
One test of an actor’s nerve is how well they handle silence, whether they can hold the audience in suspense and avoid the temptation to rush into the next line. Several times, I felt the cast struck this balance perfectly. Their execution enhanced the show’s pervasive sense of realism, drawing the audience into moments of peace or of awkwardness.
The Michael Pilch Studio is set up in the round, which notoriously creates both opportunities for intimacy and challenges for staging. While it was undoubtedly frustrating on occasion to have a character’s reaction hidden by their interlocutor or a particular line delivered with the character’s back to you, the benefits of the set-up ultimately outweigh the disadvantages, allowing the audience to feel as if they are a fly on the wall in an everyday drama. The black-box set, the only permanent features of which are three black cubes, a lamp and a hanging basket, reflects the effective simplicity of the play’s narrative. What the black cubes represented, however, was sometimes a mystery, leaving the action hanging in undefined space.
Beautiful Thing avoids the emotional crises which might be expected from a coming-out story. Instead, it invites the audience to watch an everyday romance develop in delicate detail: this show says with a gesture what other productions might say with a monologue. In the end, Beautiful Thing refuses to offer its audience a story with all the creases smoothed out, but concludes with a sense of fulfilment and hope for the future.