East London Food & Culture

Beautiful Thing, Stratford East – review

It's the 30th anniversary of one of the 90s' most pioneering LGBTQ plays

We love the late Victorian splendour of Theatre Royal Stratford East – and yet don’t seem to go there as much as we’d like. But the perfect reason for a revisit was this new 30th anniversary production of Jonathan Harvey’s classic coming-of-age story Beautiful Thing.

Back in the 90s, when the play first opened – subsequently becoming a must-see hit film – it was an essential watch for any young queer person. Its simple tale of two boys falling in love on a council estate in South London felt both original and previously untold. More importantly, it was optimistic – and not, like so much drama at the time, specifically about the AIDS crisis.  “I also wanted to show that there was another way of portraying gay relationships rather than upper class men in cricket whites,” said Harvey wryly in last night’s lively Q&A after the play.

In this production, the excellent cast comprises Raphael Akuwudike and Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran as the two chalk-and-cheese leads Ste and Jamie, joined by Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge (the right-on Tony), a show-stealing Shvorne Marks (Sandra) and Scarlett Rayner (wildcard schoolgirl Leah).

Both boys are being bullied, Jamie at school and Ste at home by his violent father. Together they come to terms with their blossoming sexuality – after a night or two topping and tailing as they share a bed, of course. With Mama Cass providing the iconic soundtrack, the ending is pure, teary-eyed joy. It still packs a genuine punch.


Raphael Akuwudike (Ste), Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge (Tony), Shvorne Marks (Sandra), Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran (Jamie) and Scarlett Rayner (Leah). Photos: The Other Richard

The key difference with this new production, directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike, is that it’s seen through a queer Black lens – and thus feels like a genuinely fresh take. As Harvey said (again in the post-play discussion) the idea for the rethink came about when Simpson-Pike approached him and simply said: “I’ve never seen two Black boys kissing on stage.”

Harvey conceded in last night’s Q&A that only a couple of new lines were added; otherwise the script remains as it was in 1993. Which makes it all the more timeless and still so touchingly relevant – not to mention laugh-out-loud funny with brilliantly acerbic one-liners.

“Beautiful Thing is an iconic queer story that holds a special place in so many people’s hearts,” said director Simpson-Pike. “Many people saw their own stories on stage and screen for the first time. In its 30th anniversary year, I feel excited for people who look like me to see their own stories reflected on stage too, to feel that same stirring of recognition in this seminal piece. Black queer people have always been around: this beautiful story of discovering your true self and falling in love belongs to all of us.”

Beautiful Thing plays at Stratford East until 7th October, before playing Leeds Playhouse 18 – 28 October and HOME Manchester 31 October – 11 November. Tickets & more information visit www.stratfordeast.com.


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