The sweet, innocent bliss of first love is a feeling few can forget, and Beautiful Thing at The Michael Pilch Studio captures it perfectly. Based on a South London council estate, the play follows Jamie (Lee Simmonds) and Ste (Chris Dodsworth) as they embark upon a teenage romance. Jamie lives with his single-mum Sandra (Emelye Moulton) and her boyfriend Tony (Callum Coghlan), and Ste lives with his abusive father. Their next-door neighbour Leah (Francesca Amewudah-Rivers), who has been expelled from school and spends her days listening to Mama Cass, is the last in a bunch of surprisingly endearing characters.
Beautiful Thing is more than a love story: it’s about sexuality, class and family. We see the struggles of Sandra laid bare, a working-class, single mother striving to provide for her son. We question the position of young Leah, who seems to have been forgotten by the world after her expulsion from school. The issue of sexuality in a working class context is something that is seldom explored in theatre, thus the decision to stage Beautiful Thing is both timely and important.
Central to this play is the relationships that develop between different characters, and the chemistry between the cast members was spot on. Simmonds, Dodsworth and Amewudah-Rivers had a brilliant dynamic. Individually, Moulton put in a fantastic performance as Sandra, perhaps the most complex character in the play; the audience could simultaneously sympathise with her situation and be dismayed by her actions. Moreover, I must say that Coghlan had great comic timing as Tony. The light moments in the play were a great success and certainly appreciated by the audience.
I would, however, question the decision to perform the play in the round. Although it was an understandable attempt to foster intimacy, I was often left watching the backs of heads and couldn’t help but feel like sometimes I was missing out. Otherwise, the minimalistic set worked well, as it allowed the chemistry between the characters to really take centre stage. This staging of Beautiful Thing is a perfect example of a play in which the characters and actors are really allowed to speak for themselves.
Despite some of its darker themes, the overall tenderness of Beautiful Thing left me feeling warm and full of hope. The play is easy and enjoyable to watch but also serves as a sincere exploration of working-class sexuality and relationships. Overall this is a highly commendable production.