Beautiful Thing review: Hilarious and heartwarming revival uplifts gay Black love

Raphael Akuwudike and Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran as Ste and Jamie in Beautiful Thing. (Supplied)

The 30th anniversary revival of Jonathan Harvey’s 90s queer coming-of-age classic, Beautiful Thing, is a tenderly portrayed triumph.

On a council estate in south London, there are three houses filled with closely held secrets, lost hopes and wistful dreams. At one end of this row of homes – simply but elegantly captured on a walkway in Theatre Royale Stratford East’s stage – Ste (Raphael Akuwudike), a football-loving teen living in an abusive household, finds sanctuary next door.

It’s here that we meet the hilariously sassy Sandra (Shvorne Marks), a fiercely protective mother who is never short of a witty remark. Her latest lover Tony (Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge), a desperately devoted middle-class artist, struggles in the face of Sandra’s fiery temper and ambition.

Then there is Leah (Scarlett Rayner), a constant presence at the end of the road since her expulsion from school, who harbours an intense obsession with singer Mama Cass and an ever-dwindling hopes to return to the education system.

At the centre of them all is Sandra’s son Jamie (Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran), a shy boy who prefers The Sound of Music to the football field and who happily welcomes a troubled Ste when he comes knocking. Against this lively backdrop, we watch Ste and Jamie slowly fall in love. 

Beautiful Thing 30th anniversary revival

Forced to share a bed on evenings when Ste is seeking refuge from his father, Akuwudike and Owokoniran craft an exquisite chemistry that leaves you rooting for their love to flourish.

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Their dynamic delicately balances the tenderness of first love with the terrifying reality of being a gay Black boy in the 90s – captured best as Jamie lovingly tends to Ste’s bruises in the quiet of the night. Despite the challenges that face them, their bravery to choose love over fear is the warmth at the heart of the play.

Jonathan Harvey’s story, interpreted here by director by Anthony Simpson-Pike, offers a much-needed portrayal of gay Black love defined by hope rather than trauma. The play’s most powerful moments are found in its most positive ones, from of Sandra’s tearjerking acceptance of the boys’ relationship to Ste and Jamie’s gorgeously romantic final dance. 

Weighty scenes are perfectly punctuated with moments of humour, such as when the street is sent into a mad scramble to sober-up a high Leah in the middle of the night, or through well-timed one liners scattered throughout. 

In particular, Marks offers a standout performance, leaving the audience in fits of laughter and misty-eyed from one moment to the next.

One thing is for sure, Beautiful Thing remains not only a timely commentary on the struggles for working-class gay teens, but also a feel good triumph that leaves audience grinning as the lights go down.

With their joyful energy, the revival cast brilliantly pays homage to this eclectic cast of characters first unleashed on the world by Harvey three decades ago.

Beautiful Thing runs in Theatre Royale Stratford East until 7 October, before heading to Leeds Playhouse from 18 to 28 October and HOME in Manchester from 31 October to 11 November.