‘Beautiful Thing’: The play that made it OK to be gay on stage

The Times

April 15, 2013


Why my tears writing this? Blame Mama Cass Elliott: It’s Getting Better, Make Your Own Kind of Music and Dream a Little Dream of Me. Those wonderful songs are the pivots of Beautiful Thing, Jonathan Harvey’s play about two teenagers, Jamie and Ste, falling in love on the Thamesmead estate in South London. Jamie and his lioness of a mother, Sandra, battling for a better life for them both. Ste, being beaten by his thuggish dad. And Leah, their Mama Cass-loving neighbour, blasting tunes from next door.

With no clichés or right-on grandstanding, these two teenage boys fall in love — peppermint foot lotion is key — and dance in the warm evening sunshine in front of gobsmacked neighbours.

Twenty years after Beautiful Thing was first performed at the Bush Theatre in West London, I’m crying again, just as I did watching the play performed on a small stage and then the 1996 film. Sandra would probably offer me her Autumnal Shades tissues.

The description most often applied to Harvey’s classic play — the 20th-anniversary production of which is running at the Arts Theatre in London — is “feel-good”. This is probably because before 1993, amazing as it may seem to a younger generation used to homosexuality and seeing it on TV,gay love stories tended not to turn out so well, if they were visible at all. John Hurt as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant had bravely sallied forth on TV, but Beautiful Thing marked a watershed where gays not only survived, but thrived with support and love around them. This is too sappy a summary for what Harvey actually wrote: a hard-edged, funny, moving love story that enchants audiences not just for its happy ending but by keeping its wits about itself. Feel-good, but also feel-real.

“When it first went out on tour a few people made repulsed noises when the boys kissed,” Harvey says. “I also remember a woman in Leeds saying very loudly to her neighbour, ‘They’ve got the same carpet as you, Joan’.”

It has been “really exciting” for Harvey to watch the twentieth anniversary rehearsals. “It’s completely surreal to hear Mama Cass playing again. The fact that it’s stood the test of time is completely bonkers and slightly overwhelming —perhapsit’sbecause it’s about first love and fancying someone,and we’ve all experienced that. And it’s funny, I guess.”

Harvey wrote it when he was 24,while working as a teacher in Thamesmead.

As a child, a teacher had admonished him about a drawing he’d done: “Jonathan Harvey, cavemen did not wear stilettos.” That encapsulates his writing for the stage, for Coronation Street and TV shows including Gimme Gimme Gimme and Beautiful People; he is a master of vinegary vulgarity and raw, sharp emotion. A happy boy at home, he didn’t like “the real world, where people were mean to you ’cos you were camp”.

The scenes between Jamie and Sandra were based on conversations Harvey had with his parents when he came out at 18. “I was very lucky. My dad had a gay friend at work so they weren’t completely out of their comfort zone. Still, it was a lot for them to get their heads round. Although I think they found it easy to reconcile that their Jonathan was gay, they were more worried about what society at large thought and how I would be treated.”

Just like Armistead Maupin’s equally, defiantly untragic novel cycle, Tales of The City — the TV version of the first novel also debuted in 1993 — Beautiful Thing is a modern gay classic. When it was first performed there was no equal age of consent (it was 21 for gays, 16 for heterosexuals) or civil partnerships. There was a ban on gays serving openly in the Armed Forces, “queers” were bashed and killed on the streets, Section 28, forbidding the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools, was in force, making the isolated gay teenager’s lot that much worse. Tabloids frothed with homophobia.There was fledgeling visibility in pop culture, but gays were still the bullseye on intolerance’s dartboard.

“The changes have been massive,” Harvey says. “Some Tories have even turned pro-gay. You have to remember this play was written when there weren’t many gay characters on TV, and mostly gay characters died or they were kicked out of their house and sold their arses for 20 Woodbines. Visibility is immeasurably better. But, of course, homophobia hasn’t gone away.”

To scroll forward now to almost full legislative equality — marriage is the last hurdle — is not only to marvel at how quickly society and laws have evolved,butalsotoreflectonhow prejudice that was once generally acceptable is now not. In the past 20 years there has been a conf luence of brave politicking — Peter Tatchell’s Outrage group, the Stonewall lobby group, politicians such as Tony Blair who championed equality against the prevailing winds of the time — and growing acceptance. Sure, there are more gays on telly, but for me this has really derived from the grassroots of families, from what the inspirational Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco supervisor murdered in 1978, said was gays’ most important weapon: coming out, which is also at the emotional heart of Beautiful Thing.

Milk said that the most potent thing homosexuals could do was declaring ourselves to families, loved ones and colleagues. In the play’s most Autumnal Shades scene, Jamie tells the truth about himself to himself and to his mother. When she tells him that she would never “put you out like yesterday’s milk” it’s so poignant, not just because her love is so raw and clear, but because every gay person watching wants to hear the same from their parents. When Sandra dances alongside Jamie and Ste at the end she watches her neighbours with a prizefighter’s eye, daring any one of them to hurt her boy.

Hugh Bonneville — Robert Crawley in Downton Abbey — appeared in the 1993 Bush production, then produced it in the West End. “I knew there was a bigger audience for it,” he says. “It really touched me and made me laugh. Its legacy was revolutionary. I get frustrated when it’s seen as a ‘gay play’; I think it’s a great play. If you label something you exclude a significant part of its potential audience.

“Producing Beautiful Thing was my happiest experience on stage. It was called an urban fairytale and it is. It was a wish-fulfillment ending, to a point. It tells you, ‘It will be OK, but it’s up to you to make it OK’.”

The love story of an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old is still, as Bonneville says, “challenging, touching on dangerous territory and still contentious. Certainly things weren’t as good for gay people when Beautiful People was first produced, and prejudice and discrimination remains.”

The movie star Andrew Garfield, Hollywood’s new Spider-Man, played Jamie in a 2006 production. “I remember a son and mother in the front row. He was 17 or 18 and they spent the play holding hands, crying and laughing. They told us how much the play helped them.

“Jonathan wrote such a powerful play, the simplicity of it is that it’s a profound, beautiful story of how love can transform you — gay, straight, bi, lesbian, whoever.”

Both Jamie and Spider-Man share “a vulnerability”, he says. “They need father figures and have hidden parts of themselves they’re struggling to own.”

Garfield wasn’t thinking about social injustice when he took the role, then saw what the play meant to audiences. He wasn’t nervous about playing gay, having been “very lucky” to have an upbringing “free of prejudice”. Plus Gavin Brocker (who played Ste) “was a handsome young man. I always feel it’s a love story, star-crossed lovers who, despite the huge rift between them, feel compelled to be together.”

The play reinforced for Garfield “the injustice of how homosexuals are treated, the imbalance that still exists in terms of rights and judgments. Of course I’m in favour of marriage equality. Same-sex couples should have the same rights as anyone else. There is no argument against equality. How can anyone argue against compassion and understanding?”

Has Beautiful Thing ever been a millstone for Harvey? “No, it’s lovely. I’m very proud of it and as time goes on it’s easier to be proud as it feels as though it was written by somebody else.”

In gay years, 1993 feels a world away, but Beautiful Thing remains true and fresh. Gay teens are still bullied, some take their own lives; gays are still face discrimination and harassment (and much worse in some countries). Marriage equality remains elusive and fraught. But the currency of homosexuality, the social heartbeat, has changed and Beautiful Thing remains a treasure that helped to change perceptions and lives. The cavemen in stilettos, Mama Cass and peppermint foot lotion won.