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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp London Review
by Neil Dowden
The title refers not to gay love as such but to the first love experienced by two 16-year-olds, Jamie (Andrew Garfield) and Ste (Gavin Brocker), one summer on a council estate in south-east London. Jamie bunks off from sport at school, while Ste is renowned for his all-round sporting prowess, but when Ste stays over one night after a violent argument with his father and brother, their mutual attraction develops into sexual awakening and romance blossoms.
Jamie's mother Sandra (Sophie Stanton) is too preoccupied with her shift work as a barmaid and with her dope-smoking artist boyfriend Tony (Leo Bill) to notice what's going on, but the Mama Cass-obsessed girl next door, Leah (Naomi Bentley), soon realizes why Ste hasn't responded to her advances.
Much has changed since the play was written -- including the repeal of the discriminatory Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act forbidding the "promotion of homosexuality", the lowering of the homosexual age of consent to 18 and, most recently, the introduction of 'civil partnerships' for gay people - but Beautiful Thing has dated well because it is more romantic than polemical. Yes, the drama is fairly lightweight with a sentimental ending, but this tender comedy of adolescent love retains its charm.
The setting of a working-class housing estate is nicely re-created in Ben Stones's design, complete with concrete balustrade and variously coloured front doors, while the soundtrack of songs from The Mamas and The Papas has been carefully chosen to echo what is happening in the story.
Under Toby Frow's sensitive and understated direction, the cast give natural and convincing performances in the intimate Sound Theatre. The relationship between Andrew Garfield's hesitant yet determined Jamie and the more masculine awkwardness of Gavin Brocker's Ste is very believable. Sophie Stanton (who played Leah in the original production) is outstanding as the sympathetically vulgar Sandra, a feisty single parent who gives as good as she gets, while Leo Bill is amusingly vague as her current squeeze Tony. Naomi Bentley makes the most of the bored 'slag' Leah who will do anything to attract attention to herself - even 'coming out' as a dyke if necessary.
Editor's Note: It's been seven years since CurtainUp encountered this play (the 1999 review) and it's nice to note that it retains its appeal.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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