When I told my dad that I was going to university, he was behind the bar in our pub. By then, I had been a single parent for three years and my parents had practically brought up my son. There were just a couple of regulars in the pub that day, and I was leaving to pick up my son from school. I overheard my dad talking to them: “Well, she needed to do something, she’s a shit barmaid.”
Like Sandra in Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, my parents were brilliant at what they did, and rightly proud. Also like Sandra, I struggled with the demands of parenting and had a string of boyfriends who weren’t good enough to feature permanently in our lives. But I had something else very precious. I met my friend Julian working front of house at the theatre and we had many nights out in Manchester’s gay village. By the time the film of Beautiful Thing came out in 1996, I’d been Leah, Sandra and a bit of Jamie too. Watching a new production last night with Julian brought back our youth.
In this 30th anniversary revival of Harvey’s iconic, coming-out and coming-of-age story set in the 1990s, Jamie (Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran) is avoiding sports at school and his mum Sandra (Shvorne Marks) hasn’t got time to deal with his dossing. Sporty Ste (Raphael Akuwudike) next door tries to be upbeat while being beat up by his horrendous family. Jamie’s other next-door neighbour is Leah (Scarlett Rayner) who loves Mamma Cass, singing, mouthing off and generally dropping out. Tony (Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge) comes into the mix as an artsy posh boy with Sandra as his muse and acts out being a father figure to Jamie. Tony’s self-conscious correctness prevents him from being anything other than a footnote in both Jamie and Sandra’s life.
This is played out mostly between the front doors outside Ste, Jamie and Leah’s in a hot summer where love is in the air. With deftly succinct dialogue by Harvey and a tender direction by Anthony Simpson-Pike. Jamie and Ste edge tentatively towards a romance. Sandra has dreams, and that hanging basket for barmaid of the year proves it. Leah might just have friends and family looking out for her in the end.
Sandra is a representation of a matriarchal warrior barely seen on stage now. She is complex and three-dimensional. She is really proud of her job, and fiercely loves her son. But Sandra isn’t an angel and cracks Jamie when her temper gets the better of her. Jamie has that temper too, but it is mostly channelled into a resolve that he knows where he’s heading, even if he hasn’t yet found the route. And Sandra will be there clearing the path. This is not a judgemental play. Both characters garner strength from each other and are extremely close.
Beautiful Thing is a working-class story which doesn’t pull its punches about class struggle and homophobia, while also being hopeful and uplifting. It holds a special place in my heart.
Photos by The Other Richard
Beautiful Thing is at HOME, Manchester until November 11, 2013. For more information, click here.