THEATRE / Sweetness and night: Paul Taylor on Beautiful Thing at the Donmar

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The Independent Culture
Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing is a play that shows you its dimples quite a lot, a habit that would quickly get tiresome, if the dimples weren't so fetching. Thanks to the powerful attractiveness of both the humour and the cast, you emerge feeling as if you've just been immersed up to the eyebrows in a vat of totally unsynthetic charm.

A feel-good play, set in a Thamesmead council block that touches on family violence, the difficulties of coming out for 'under-age' gay boys, Aids and truancy? Surely some contradiction, here? Well, yes and no. It's significant, for example, that the upbeat mood of this rites-of-passage drama is substantially established by music that has to be borrowed from an earlier, less troubled era. From 'It's Getting Better' at the start to 'Dream a Little Dream of Me' at the close, the honeyed candour of Mama Cass's voice pours through Hettie Macdonald's delightful production. To legitimise this anachronism, the chippy teenager Leah (Sophie Stanton) is presented as a raving Mama Cass freak.

The play traces the blossoming relationship between a couple of boys who live in neighbouring high-rise flats and one of the likeable things about the piece is the puckish obliquity with which it approaches the romantic crunch. As the pair shift edgily from sleeping top-to-toe to cheek-to-cheek, the course of true love has to negotiate an obstacle course on which wacky items like inedible beetroot salad and peppermint foot lotion feature rather more vividly than sobering considerations such as the paper-thin walls and the prejudices of a violent father.

The performances of Mark Letheren and Shaun Dingwall have a wonderfully validating effect on these scenes of shy, tentative intimacy and the actors signal beautifully the boys' amused recognition of their differences (Ste is sporty but timid, Jamie the reverse). 'Dear Brian, Can you contract the HIV virus via frottage?' Ste reads out from the agony column in Gay Times, wondering what on earth frottage can be. Jamie puts him right: 'It's yoghurt, innit? It's French.' Does that moment deftly and lightly make due allusion to Aids, or does it simply flick the subject away in a joke? I'd say the former, just as I'd want to emphasise the anguish powerfully communicated by the brassy, loud-mouthed mother (Amelda Brown) before her switch to serene tolerance in the wish-fulfilling close.

Blissfully captured by Richard Bonneville, the funniest character is the mother's boyfriend, the younger, middle-class Tony, an anxious soul forever tripping over himself to keep up a front of laid-back cool and to impart reassuring vibes. Collected into a volume, Tony's blinding apercus ('Age is just number, y'know') would certainly make any reader feel better, though not quite for the reasons intended.

Twenty-five-year old Harvey, already the recipient of the George Devine Award, writes with a wonderfully buoyant wit, but can suggest vistas of desolation very succinctly when need be. I hope and suspect we'll be hearing a lot more from this writer.

Booking: 071-867 1150

(Photograph omitted)

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