Beautiful Thing, Tobacco Factory, Bristol

IT was way back in 1954 that the Wolfenden Committee was set up to investigate homosexuality and prostitution, but it took another 13 years before the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised gay sex.

Move on just over a quarter of a century to 1993 when Jonathan Harvey wrote this play about two young teenagers, Jamie bullied at school and Ste bullied by a drunken father,  discovering solace and peace in their growing love for one another – and despite all that had gone before it still caused a sensation.

That violent initial reaction has calmed down in the intervening years, but Mike Tweddle, who directs this play with great commitment and belief, is convinced that anti-liberal ideologies are on the rise in today’s society and that this is the right time to reiterate the messages of tolerance and freedom of expression contained in the writing.

Making excellent use of Anisha Fields designs and the “in the round” setting at the Tobacco Theatre, with minimal props and stage dressing Mike conjures up vivid images of a south London council estate in the middle part of the last century.

At the heart of the story Ted Reilly gives a fine sensitive performance as the gentle nature-loving Jamie struggling to understand the new emotions that are taking him over. Making his professional debut Tristan Waterson gives notice of good things to come battling against his natural instincts trying to be the macho sportsman his bullying father and drug trading brother want him to be.

A beautifully judged performance from Phoebe Thomas as Sandra, Jamie’s mother, her deep love for him finally overcoming her strongly held prejudices. And a lovely underplayed portrayal of the weak artist Tony, aged 27, stranded mid-way between his mistress Sandra and her son Jamie and failing both. Amy-Leigh Hickman, keeping admirable control of her portrait of the near hysterical drug addicted teenage neighbour Leah who has been excluded from school for her uncontrollable behaviour, rounds off a strong cast.

Linking the scenes like a modern Greek Chorus, singing music from the 50s to the 90s, was a Community Choir with members ranging from teenagers to septuagenarians drawn from Bristol (and for the next stops on the tour, from  Newcastle-under-Lyme and Lancaster.)

The play ends with Jamie and Ste dancing romantically together to the strains of the sentimental Dream a Little Dream of Me, sending them out into the sunset to live happily ever after, but if Mike Tweddle’s assessment of present day society is right you have to question that conclusion.


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