THEATRE / Playing happy families: Rhoda Koenig reviews Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing

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It's a grim place for comedy, the landing outside three flats on a Thamesmead, south-east London, council estate where the geraniums dotted about to cheer up the place seem terrified by the scale of the task. Yet Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing manages - up to a point - to extract plenty of rough and realistic humour from this sordid milieu. Past that point, however, the play slips into another less interesting genre.

Sandra (towering Patricia Kerrigan) is, at 35, a former Barmaid of the Year and the mother of Jamie, a wistful teenager who has never learnt to kick a football. Despite her vermilion hair, miniskirt, leather jacket and zip- up stilettoes, Sandra is one of the 'old people' to Leah, the school drop out next door.

Leah engages in non-stop slanging matches with Sandra (the older woman scores on energy and inventiveness, the younger on vulgarity) and moons over Sandra's other neighbour, Ste. But Ste, the gentle victim of a drunken, violent father, has eyes only for the boy next door. Away from the raw anger and self-assertion of their parents, Ste and Jamie have a quiet cuddle and plan a night out at a gay bar.

Harvey is good at reproducing the backchat of women who spend their lives in a snit or in a sulk, as well as the crossfire of teenagers tentatively growing up with parents who find adulthood uncomfortable and bewildering. He also makes plain that Sandra's touchiness springs from her frustration with her misspent life ('Oh, stop moanin',' she flings at Leah, 'you're young, ain't ya?') and her inability to control what is going on in her own home - 'If this were my pub,' she splutters at a fractious Jamie, 'I'd have you barred.' And brings out the sad irony of women forever berating their men for being wimps but submitting to bullies (one of Sandra's ex-boyfriends left her with two black eyes) or turning into bullies themselves. Amiable and well-observed as Harvey's play is when concerned with the problems of children and heterosexuals, it loads the gay theme with too much self- justification and wishful thinking. Is it really plausible that Sandra, on discovering what her only child has been up to under the duvet, should immediately affirm her love and support?

None of the actors in Hettie Macdonald's production can be faulted. But, Harvey lets us and the characters down with his resolution, in which Sandra and the three teenagers go off as one happy family to the gay bar to watch a male stripper. Such sentiment takes us into the realm of fantasy or soap opera.