Jonathan Harvey’s 1993 play, honoured in its 20th anniversary year by this Mardi Gras production, is called Beautiful Thing. And Burley’s rendition of it is, thanks to director Brandon Martignago and a handpicked team.
We find ourselves in Thamesmead, in working-class south-east London, surrounded by bleak, post-war council housing estates. Immediately, set designer Jasmine Christie comes into her own. Extending right across The Reginald Theatre’s compact stage is the facade of a high-rise block of flats. It looks almost real (thanks to set builder Michael Watkins). We’re almost there. As we enter, we see the central character, Jamie (Michael Brindley), hanging around, on the balcony outside the unit in which he and his mother, Sandra (Amanda Stephens Lee), live. Also hanging around is their next door neighbour, Leah (Stephanie King). On the other side lives Ste (Luke Willing) and dropping by frequently is Tony (Andrew Hearle), Sandra’s new boyf.
Nick Curnow has done a splendid job as dialect coach: none of the cast has any serious lapses in this (or any other) respect. Having said that, once again, it would’ve been interesting and easily achievable, given a handful of vernacular adjustments, to bring the action into, say, a Waterloo housing commission high-rise.
But, dealing with what is, Martignago has done a splendid job of honouring a heartrending play. He has ensured all the (onstage) characters, whatever their faults and foibles, are easy to love, not least because empathy is so easy: if you can’t find pieces of oneself in one or other, or several, of these people, check, you may be a Vulcan.
Unusually for the time in which it was written, Harvey spares us the in-your-face brutality of yet another play about HIV. He even spares us much of the brutality of growing-up and continuing to live as one of the working poor, in a still-Dickensian London neighbourhood. If one should be “different”, in the way of gay, Muslim, black, or anything else, the difficulties are, of course, compounded. Harvey and Martignago deal with these issues powerfully, but not confrontingly. We don’t need to see the results of the violence inflicted on Ste by his deadbeat, drunken father of bastardising brother. We can feel it. While Ste’s copping sticks and stones, Jamie’s being called names and bullied. But neither do we need to have concrete evidence: as with Ste, it’s written into his character and demeanour.
But Harvey and Martignago give us more than insights into deftly-drawn characters. They offer us an uplifting snapshot of the bonds and community that exist where they’re not supposed to: while middle-class know-it-alls look down their noses at enclaves like The Block, often without ever so much as going there, those that live and commune there are offered ongoing life support through a kind of mutuality most of us have long since forgotten; it’s hard to smile and say hello when you’re busy texting inanities as you walk down the street in a fearful fog of your own making.
Brindley is the smart, sensitive, feisty Jamie. In a sense, despite his cynicism and contempt for the small-mindedness of many, he harbours and nurtures a kind of romantic soul. Methinks this is, by design or coincidence, reflective of both Harvey and Martignago. Their vision for this play is to find light in dark corners. So that, even amidst domestic and substance abuse, underemployment and a general atmosphere of hopeless, almost insurmountable degradation, they give us not the usual camarilla of disaffected petty thieves and thugs coloured Clockwork Orange, but a coterie of caring, courageous individuals who, when push comes to shove, look out for each other.
Willing’s Ste is sensitive too. Rather than insult us with a cliched football hero, Harvey (whose spirit seems to have carved neural pathways through Martignago and his outstanding cast) compliments our intelligence by writing complexity into these boys trying and succeeding better than most, to become men.
Similarly, Jamie’s mum, Sandra, can’t be labelled. If you file her under struggling single mum, you won’t have her measure. Nor is she merely the sum of her failed relationships. She’s not a victim, even though she was beaten by at least one of her exes. Lee brings out all of these facets and balances them as beautifully as her young male counterparts.
Hearle also presents as an actor’s actor. Tony, as a fine artist and extemporaneous philosopher doesn’t look in the slightest like he’s about to set the world on fire. But he’s a bighearted bloke who takes everyone on their merits, embracing their idiosyncrasies and forgiving their trespasses. He has no capacity for malice. No room for bitterness. Have we long since forgotten to treasure, let alone cultivate, these things?
King’s interpretation of Leah, meanwhile, shows that girls who, over the years, have been branded (usually for life) as easy, sluts, town bikes, and the like, in case it needs to be said, have been the subject of great injustice and a perverse, arbitrary morality. Women who love too much, or men, for that matter, are, even still, likely to find themselves held in contempt by self-appointed presiding judges incapable of freely expressing their latent humanity and sexuality. Promiscuity isn’t always, if ever, about looseness, but a need to give and receive. King relishes every comic and physical twist and turn and, I suspect, has come up with a few of her own. Despite the narrative primacy of Jamie and Ste, it is she, through sheer performative bravado, who distinguishes herself, even amidst her excellent colleagues, as one to watch. And who knew she could sing? (Leah is obsessed by Mama Cass, whose songs suffice as her musical maharishi).
Burley’s Beautiful Thing reminds me why I attend and love theatre. And why indie theatre is as much worth the effort as mainstream. Sometimes, moreso.
The details: Beautiful Thing plays the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until March 2. Tickets on the venue website.