Beautiful Thing – an Urban Fairy-tale

‘Beautiful Thing – an Urban Fairy-tale’ is a British romantic comedy and a pun about young love. Published in 1996 by Liverpudlian Jonathan Harvey when he was 28 years old. This insightful portrait of self-discovery was intended for television only but being so well-received it was then made into a movie for the cinemas.

For twenty years writer Harvey wrote scripts for Coronation Street, whilst presenting such very different plays with the theme of homosexuality. The first with subtlety, deep love and fear of discovery was ‘Dusty – Dusty Springfield the Musical’, then his next, the brash, upbeat and garrulous ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme’ the TV comedy series that rocked the TV administrators into total anxiety.

This is NOT a blatant message on behalf of gays, instead it is an exceptionally well written, sensitive script that takes you through a brief passage in the lives of two 15-year-olds. He observes the characters in great detail, with such a tangible veracity the audience is unknowingly drawn into the affair.

The Old Mill Theatre presents this urban fairy-tale at the Old Mill Theatre, Corner of Mends Street and Mill Point Road, South Perth, 18 to 20, 23 to 26 March 2022, with Sunday matinées at 2.00 pm.

The Scene:           May 1993. Thamesmead was a working-class area of south-east London, near Greenwich, where most households were one parent with a single child. Incidentally, Thamesmead Community now proudly promote this book as a drawcard for their area.

The set (designed by production manager George Boyd): An upstairs, shared outside balcony, with three flats opening onto it. The scene depicts the use of glorious grey concrete walls!! Even the door surrounds are in blocks of concrete. A very realistic effect.

The Gangels have tried to make their front door look good, painted in scarlet with baskets of geraniums on each side. The other two front doors look dirty and tired. A small toilet window for each flat opens onto the balcony. In the centre of the floor is an old air-conditioning intake used as a seat.

For the bedroom scenes, part of a wall slides open to allow a made bed to pass though. Next to the bed is a small bedside table with a lamp.

Set construction:              Mark Nicholson, George Boyd, Adam Giltrow, Lindsay Crane, Cooper Gray, Jaclyn Clarke and Barry Park. The set was brought to life by scenic artists Adam Giltrow, Devlin Turbin and Ellien Van Heerwaarden.

Lighting:              Designed by Mark Nicholson and operated by Patrick Liston, took us from a bright summer’s day to the dim, intimate bedroom lamp. Impressive.

Sound:                  Operated by Charlie Montgomery. Some subtle school children sound effects made the flats situation real. A wonderful selection of Mama Cass songs were spread throughout the show.

Stage manager:                 Andrea Newton was assisted by Jaclyn Clarke. The cast helped with the brief scene changes. Smooth fast and efficient.

Costumes:           Marjorie DeCaux captured the era very well.

Keith Shackleton designed the striking poster, and with photographer Myles Wright, the informative programme.

Shy Jamie (Cooper Gray) is fifteen and lives with his single mother, a brassy but beautiful scrubber, Sandra Gangel (Stacey Broomhead). They live in a tough neglected council estate in London’s south-east. Sandra is determined to run her own pub, so seeks advice from her toyboy, deep-voiced and suave, Tony (Ashvath Singh Kunadi) one of her never-ending string of lovers.

Young Leah Russell (Orla Poole) is a feisty neighbour who has been expelled from school for taking class A drugs. She spends all day listening to her mother’s Mamas and Papas records and joining in with Cass Elliot.

Jamie is in love with his classmate Ste Pearce (Felix Malcolm) but hides his latent homosexuality. Being an introvert and disliking football are reasons enough for Ste’s schoolmates to bully him; he is also bullied but at home by his drug-dealing brother and his alcoholic father. So, one night, Ste seeks refuge at Jamie’s place. Sandra takes pity and lets him sleep over for one night, having to share the bed head-to-toe with Jamie. One night turns to two, they kiss and next morning Ste is gone.

What will their friends and parents say?

The accent coach, Grace Hitchin, has amazingly got the whole cast speaking with not simply a London accent, but the same area of London – so good that Professor Higgins would immediately know where they live. Check out Peter Sellars’ mocking travelogue for the area, ‘Balham, gateway to the south’.

Very early in the rehearsals, director Barry lost a couple of actors due to health or other commitments. Then on the final week of rehearsals, three of the cast had to go into isolation due to having Covid. Rehearsals progressed online – surely a first? The first week of performances had to be cancelled and then the audience numbers were reduced to 50%. As always, Barry rallied the troops and still managed to come up with a perfectly rehearsed play. The actor interaction was brilliant even though they had barely gathered in the same room together. Most impressive.

Cooper has had very little stage experience and yet displays every delicate emotion with conviction.

Stacey had accurate attitude, coupled with hilarious body language. She reminded me of Catherine Tate. Through her bold chirpy façade, Stacey’s facial expressions and phrasing hinted that Sandra has faced many problems in her life, and deep down is still struggling to cope with them. A complex and beautiful performance.

Felix has been in a great number of plays but asking him to act in such a compassionate but confronting part on stage was a big ‘ask’. The part was carried off superbly.

Orla had to sing a Mama Cass song; you could hear the audience’s jaws drop behind their Covid masks, she has perfect pitch and a clear, powerful, angelic voice. Superb. I last saw Orla as a nervous housemaid in PAANDA’s ‘Blythe Spirit’, and now at the other extreme, as the brash but inwardly sensitive 15-yrs.-old. Wow.

I first saw Ashvath when he played the dreaded ghoulish Dracula, and now as the self-centred, ingratiating boyfriend he has presented a brand-new character.

Director Barry Park has deliciously captured the thrill of a first love. Written quarter of a century ago, when homosexuality was scorned, and a guaranteed prison sentence was common for simply being a ‘poof’. Yes, this was an extremely derogatory term, but frequently used by more than half the male population at the time, against any gay man. Now we gasp at the mediaeval attitude.

Barry has brought out the affection, the fear and the confusion of the teenagers. This is a beautifully written play presented with taste and skill. Many congratulations to all for having the courage to bring it to life.

A winning comedy and non-message driving play. Please don’t think this is going to be a weird uneasy play. It is a true-to-life family situation, combined with the experiences of two young lads. Another edgy, adventurous, exciting and highly memorable production from talented director Barry Park. Very few seats left.