Love in a 1990s climate
Director: Mike Tweddle
Musical director, arranger, sound designer and musician: Thomas Johnson
Designer: Anisha Fields
Lighting designer: Chris Swain
Casting director Louis Hammond CDG
Tony Finn Hanlon
Leah Amy-Leigh Hickman
Jamie Ted Reilly
Sandra Phoebe Thomas
Ste Tristan Waterson
Get Singing Community Choir
The passage of time is a strange thing, and in particular how the near present often feels much further away than the distant past.
Such is the whiff of nostalgia that comes from Beautiful Thing, written and set in the 90s and now revived at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory.
Set on a bleak south London council estate nonetheless populated by vibrant characters, the nub of the story is the sexual awakening of two ordinary boys and their growing love for each other.
Today, this would barely pass as drama – in 1993, when Clause 28 was hanging around like a bad, shameful smell and the world was reeling from the shock news that the late Freddie Mercury was gay, the love ‘that dare not speak its name’ was still pretty much that.
It’s only 25 years ago (and judging by the cast’s costumes, the era’s fashions are still freely available in most charity shops) but really, it could be 1953.
So this is the backdrop to the affair, which begins when Ste (Tristan Waterson) flees a violent, macho household and stays over with friend and neighbour Jamie (Ted Reilly).
The pair are still at school and it’s the case that Ste might very well cop off with Leah, the foghorn-voiced, Mama Cass-obsessed estate siren (played by Amy-Leigh Hickman, who almost steals the show).
Yet when the lads share a bed (top-to-toe, of course, prompting one of the show’s best jokes) their matey familiarity turns into something much deeper.
The play’s first half is akin to an extended episode of EastEnders, perhaps not surprising given that playwright Jonathan Harvey wrote for Corrie back in the day.
Cue lots of confrontation, shouting and general argy-bargy, much of it coming from the motor-mouth of matriarch Sandra (Phoebe Thomas), struggling to come to terms with her suspicions about son Jamie’s inclinations and her own mismatch of a relationship with liberal Tony (Finn Hanlon).
After the interval, and to this reviewer’s relief, the story takes a more comic turn, and as the shouting drops a notch so the delicate humour of the love affair is allowed to emerge.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the play ends well; back in the 90s gay-themed storylines generally involved combinations of disease, drugs, shame and suicide. That a positive final note is sounded appears to foreshadow something of a hopeful future for the UK’s LGBT community.
Special mention should go to the community choir and musical director Thomas Johnson for their interpretations of a clutch of 90s classics.
Not everything works – Teen Spirit was a bit King’s Singers for me – but by and large the ensemble perfectly compliments the action on stage.
A final ironic reminder of times past and present was the sign by the theatre entrance, warning not of ‘adult themes’ (as it surely would’ve done in 1993) but that e-cigarettes would be employed during the performance.
Beautiful Thing plays Bristol until Saturday, October 27 various times
For online tickets £12 (limited availability) click HERE.
Age recommendation 14+.