THEATRE / The Thamesmead Chekhov: Jonathan Harvey's studies of sexual awakening have brought comparisons with Chekhov. Fair enough, says Georgina Brown, if Chekhov had been cheerful, spotty, gay or born in Liverpool

Georgina Brown
Tuesday 23 August 1994 23:02

If it wasn't for a particularly devastating bout of teenage acne we might have lost Jonathan Harvey to acting. He would probably have been rather good: he has a nice line in silly voices and he moves well. But the zits made him so wretchedly self-conscious he stayed off-stage (and often skived off school) and wrote plays instead. His two latest, 'grown-up' plays - Babies and Beautiful Thing - will be running simultaneously at the Royal Court and in the West End in September. It's happened before, to David Storey and Joe Orton, but they had to wait until their thirties. Harvey is 26.

Jonathan Harvey is remarkably like his plays - charming, bright, funny, unaffected, profound in the lightest possible way (and not entirely zit-free). No showing off, no intellectual acrobatics, no clever- clogs stagecraft, no grinding of political axes, just a fresh and distinct talent. Beautiful Thing, a romance between two 16-year-old lads, set on a desolate Thamesmead council estate, was one of the surprise hits of 1993. Audiences reeled out of the Bush Theatre in west London haloed in what Dominic Dromgoole, the artistic director, calls a 'Ready-Brek glow'.

It was the play's feelgood factor and vitality that struck Dromgoole when it was sent to him. 'You can say the dialogue is good, the characterisation deft and the structure works, but that doesn't sum it up. There's boundless amounts of life in it and that's very rare. There's also a tremendous amount of heartbreak and violence.'

What sets Harvey apart from so many young playwrights is his refusal to force the audience's nose in the gutter, shove misery down its throat and celebrate angst. Beautiful Thing was judged by some to be too wishful-thinking, too rosy spectacled (the Independent's Paul Taylor said, a tad cynically, 'it's like someone showing you their dimples all the time, it could get wearisome'), and the gay press would have liked to have seen Harvey furiously waving his knickers in the air and tackling the age of consent. But, as Harvey says, 'When I write I don't think about the purpose of it or about who it's for. I'm interested in character. That's where it all begins. With Beautiful Thing I was aware that I was doing something that was brave and illegal because the lads weren't 21. I didn't write it as a comedy. It was just a simple story with a few jokes.'

While burgeoning teenage sexuality is again among the themes of Babies, this play moves a step forward from Beautiful Thing to concern itself with homosexuality from a twentysomething perspective. And, once again, Babies takes a grimy, fly-blown South London council estate as its setting. Just as another Bush Theatre protege, Billy Roche, focused on Wexford, so Harvey has homed in on Thamesmead and, like Roche, let his talent and imagination run riot in a small space and a working- class setting without making an issue about it being working class. (Dominic Dromgoole has hailed him as the 'Chekhov of Thamesmead', but that undersells the abundance of Harvey's heart- warming humour.) It's the world Harvey was teaching in and one which, despite its bleakness, he found 'inspiring and wanted to get down on paper'.

In Babies, 14-year-old Tammy has a birthday party to which she invites Joe, her young Liverpudlian schoolteacher, who catches the lustful eyes of both her mother and her uncle. This tricksy situation springs directly from personal experience, but Harvey has given it a fantastical and comic top-spin, both in terms of action and of straight - and not so straight - jokes: 'You were so far back in the closet you were in fucking Narnia.' When the play was being workshopped, Harvey found himself feeling sorry for the actor playing the teacher because he had the dullest lines. 'I gave him some jokes which have taken him away from being me. It's much better.'

Harvey can't remember a time when he didn't write. As a child growing up in Liverpool, where his mother was a nurse and his father a postman-turned-social worker, he used to disappear to his room and scribble lyrics or write racy novels 'in which the characters would go back and forward in time and everybody had face-lifts and nobody recognised them. It was always let down by being set in Liverpool. Imagine a glamorous model agency, Blushes, set in Toxteth,' he giggles. In Liverpool in the Eighties proof abounded on the television, stage and screen - Willy Russell's Educating Rita, Alan Bleasdale's Boys From the Blackstuff - that anyone could write. 'If I'd been brought up in Prestwich it might have been a bit different. Although Victoria Wood's from Prestwich . . .'

Harvey's enthusiasm for drama was fuelled by Saturday morning sessions run by the local youth theatre. 'I loved it,' he says, hilariously recollecting the elocution lessons ('My father's car is a Jaguar and he drives it rather fast') and giving a gravelly but none the less tuneful rendition of a verse from The Wizard of Oz in which, aged eight, he played the coroner of the Munchkins. 'I loved the show-business, the dressing-up, the campness. I got all the musicals out of the record library, danced round my room to them and wanted the glamour.'

When he was 18, armed with the confidence of youth ('I thought, 'I've been the coroner of the Munchkins, I can do it' '), he rattled out a play for the Liverpool Playhouse Young Writers' Festival, and won first prize and pounds 1,000. While doing his degree in psychology and education at Hull, his play about the Troubles ('I knew nothing about them') won him a slot at the Royal Court Young Writers' Festival.

Despite the prizes, Harvey persisted with teaching in South London. Last year, however, he was given an eight-week residency at the National Theatre Studio and had to give up the day job. He is not sorry, though he is anxious he has lost touch with a fertile area of inspiration. 'Teaching is such a vile job, you want to get out. If you stay in it too long you turn into a Fascist. I found myself getting really angry when I caught a girl wearing nail-varnish or a boy with an ear-ring. Well, why should that make me angry?'

He gave himself two years to succeed and it took six months: the BBC has commissioned a play about Aids; Beautiful Thing is being done for television and the original Bush production, slightly recast, is on course for the Duke of York's in mid-September; Babies won the 1993 George Devine award and is currently in rehearsal for a main-stage production at the Royal Court.

Harvey is far from dazed by the bright lights and the bigger city. 'I'm used to it now. It feels like another day, another dollar, which is disappointing because it should be dead exciting. I thought my life would slip into place. But it doesn't. You've still got to do your washing; you're still going back to an empty bed.'

'Beautiful Thing' is at the Duke of York's from 19 Sept (Booking: 071- 836 5122); Babies previews at the Royal Court on 5 Sept and opens on 9 Sept (Booking: 071-730 1745)

(Photograph omitted)

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