Beautiful Thing, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Delirious duo shine a light on a first summer of love

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The Independent Culture

It is quite wrong to say that there is a happy ending to this production of Beautiful Thing. Rather than conclude, it simply dissolves into a star-spangled finale of kitschy live-in-the- moment joyfulness.

But that, of course, is what being in love feels like. And you would have to be a real curmudgeon not to grant Jamie and Ste their moment of sublimation before the realities of coupledom begin to bite.

Sarah Frankcom's production of Jonathan Harvey's breakthrough coming-of-age piece, completed during one frenzied school summer holiday of writing when he worked as a teacher, is a deliriously happy if insubstantial affair which plays astutely to a receptive audience in Manchester.

It is also a brilliant time capsule for a recent past that feels close enough to be modern without being quite far enough in the distance to be retro.

Set in 1993, in John Major's Britain, Harvey describes the period as one when there were few gay role models on television. It was also an era before the ubiquity of the mobile phone, when life revolved around the pleasures of Mastermind, East 17 and some rather dodgy knitwear.

He was provoked into writing the play after hearing members of the House of Lords droning on about "buggery" and "sodomy" when discussing whether to level the age of consent. This was not what being gay was about, he recalls.

The story drops in on the life of Jamie, a disillusioned schoolboy marooned one balmy summer on an unlovely housing estate in south-east London.

The heat and the paper-thin walls add to the sense of teenage claustrophobia and Matthew Tennyson plays the part of the games-hating outcast to perfection, reminding one not a little of Johnny Robinson from X Factor.

Amid the bleak reality of his life there shimmers one luminous shard of well-muscled happiness – Ste (short for Steve), played by Tommy Vine, who completes a brilliant transition from football-loving David Watts-type to unselfconscious gay clubber by way of a series of fumbles under Jamie's Superman duvet.

Meanwhile, Tara Hodge as the unsavoury and unrequited Mama Cass-loving girl next door, Leah, spars uproariously with Jamie's mum, Sandra (Claire-Louise Cordwell), the tarty matriarch whose heart of gold matches her nine-carat earrings. Alex Price is also outstanding as the reluctant artist and council-estate bohemian Tony.

To 3 December (0161 833 9833)

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