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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
Although Beautiful Thing began in London as a stage play, it is best known in this country as a joyous, lovely film. Once a play has become a successful movie, the conventional wisdom is you can't put the genie back in the bottle. So it is a particularly great and wonderful surprise that the current production trumps its celluloid cousin.
The key word here seems to be restraint. Instead of missing the expansiveness the film medium affords, we are here struck by the play's immediacy and intimacy.
The economy begins with Jonathan Harvey's elegantly structured, keenly written script. Stripped back to only five on-stage characters, each can be observed through a zoom lens. Although Beautiful Thing is thought of as a story of the discovery of young love between two boys, each of Harvey's characters is fully developed, and the story of each has its own arc.
Fifteen year-old Jamie (Matt Stinton) lives with his mother, Sandra (Kirsten Sahs), in the high-rise working-class sprawl of southeast London. With the weight of her own ups-and-downs fresh in her mind, she is a nagging, over-protective mother of a son whose worst problem seems to be a lack of athleticism.
Sandra is especially belligerent to the influences of Leah (Susan Bennett), the girl next door who was kicked out of high school and now sits around smoking, listening to the Mamas and the Papas and imitating (in virtually every respect) Mama Cass. Sandra has a much kinder, even loving attitude to the boy next door (on the other side), a sensitive, athletic schoolmate of Jamie's called Ste (Daniel Eric Gould). Ste lives with his alcoholic father and his brother, both of whom seem to think of him both as their servant and punching bag. The cast is rounded out by Sandra's most recent boyfriend, Tony (Kurt Brocker), eight years her junior. For his part, Tony seems pretty together -- devoted to Sandra and very caring of all.
When physical violence chases Ste from his flat, and Sandra invites him to stay in Jamie's room, little does she imagine the sexual exploration and budding romance she is setting in motion. Harvey manages to illuminate the path toward sexual identification and affection with poignancy but without even a hint of either sappiness or titillation.
This restraint carries over to the five performances of great integrity. The cast comes to New York intact from a successful seven-month run in Chicago. And it shows. The timing, especially between the two boys and between Jamie and his mother, shows the patina of many months of rehearsal. Stinton's every movement is studied and precise, from the way his facial expression conveys his frustrations, confusion and excitement, to the way he stands, carries himself, holds and kicks a soccer ball. Gould is every bit his equal, revealing his psychological damage subtly, telegraphing in hesitations and silences the anxiety that contradicts his superficial confidence.
Bennett is also superb as the barb-tongued Leah. Her verbal sparring with Sandra, and her Mama Cass obsession, are responsible for many of the show's laughs, but her finely-tuned rendering does not cloud any of the tragic consequences of the collision of dreams and fantasies in her life. Brocker is fine in the play's smallest role, as is Sahs as Sandra. Although she is the only actor to win a Jefferson award in Chicago for this show, hers is the only performance here from which something seems to be lacking. She is the glue that holds (and/or brings) the other characters together, and yet she never quite finds the heart of the character, which seems to beat just below the surface.
There are, of course, scenes vividly remembered from the film that do not play as well on stage. Chief among these is the film's memorable final scene in which the camera pans back to reveal an aptly beautiful thing. A plot line involving Sandra's desire to move away from the highrise wasteland and take over a pub of her own, hinted at here, is given broader and better play on film. And, although the set features a cleverly concealed bedroom that revolves away on a turntable, the overall production values are strangely unevocative and leave a great deal to be desired.
In the last few years, we have seen the work of a great many young British playwrights, almost invariably reacting in large measure to the tenure of Margaret Thatcher with an unredeemingly gloomy worldview. Here, we have a small story borne of the same circumstances that somehow discovers a soaring optimism amongst all of the angst.