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- Theatre review: Murder Ballad @ Arts Theatre, London West End - 27 October, 2016
“Do you think I’m Queer?”
“Doesn’t matter what I think…”
As a writer for Vada, I was particularly excited about being invited to review Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing this week at the Arts Theatre in Leicester Square. This recent production marks the 20th anniversary of the beloved play. However, 20 years means the play has been revived and revamped multiple times, including a film adaptation, so the question is – what can this production offer us?
With a TV star as the top offering in the cast in the form of the lovely Suranne Jones, it was refreshing to see a play hitting the West End that wasn’t completely reliant on a big star, and with a lead boy making his professional debut, whilst still in his final year at Arts Educational, this definitely had me excited.
The set, designed by Colin Richmond, captured the essence of the urban South East London estate with a walled backdrop covered with pipes and a random shopping trolley protruding from the wall. It was all cleverly designed with no over complication within the actual set. The small details really added to the set with additions such as the aforementioned shopping trolley, the flower-filled hanging baskets, and three doors that acted as both 3 houses but also rooms of the house. It was very astutely designed. I must add at this point that the use, and revealing, of the bed was also handled with precision and poignancy every time. Good job.
And onto the acting. First off, we must discuss our soon-to-be Arts Educational graduate. As the play progressed, Danny-Boy Hatchard came into his character Ste more so, but for the first half an hour of the play we had no idea what the boy looked like! A slip that should have been noted by Director Nikolai Foster was the amount of side profiling occurring in the scenes. I can understand that Ste should perhaps be portrayed as the strong silent type, so his later coming out is more of a shock, but in fact the inability to engage with this character (with some lines directed up stage, also) became a little frustrating. However, Ste’s later comical reactions to Jamie exciting him and the scenes to follow were something to be admired.
The crucial scene, where Jamie kisses Ste, initially took the audience by surprise as we all waited with anticipation to see Ste’s reaction – would he kiss back? If you have seen the production before, which most people have, you already know the answer… But these boys made it feel like it was the first time all over again. Heart racing, frantic eyes, shaking hands, and then he did it. He kissed back.
The subsequent scenes certainly took a turn towards the darker side through Jamie’s coming to terms with his sexuality and Sandra, his mum, reacting to his coming out. The nature of the play here was particularly intriguing to me. In this portrayal of that horrific moment when you decide to tell your parents, played brilliantly by Jake Davies, the auditorium fell quiet as he stole our hearts. All at once we saw fear, courage, and realisation settle into one boy. Suranne Jones’ handling of the situation as his mum, Sandra, was equally as credible, displaying a perfectly accurate balance between ‘I must be here for my child’ set against the fear of her son being gay. Luckily for Jamie, his mum is one of the few that is rather cool with it all!
The cast in general are very strong, but I must offer the advice that using repeated intonation and deliverance of lines in Tony (Oliver Farnworth), starts off as a funny choice and quickly dries up after over-use. There are definitely some missed moments for comedy and variance in the way the comedy is delivered. Hopefully this will grow and develop over the six week run. In contrast, another smaller role in the form of Leah (Zaraah Abrahams) deserves high credit as she kept everyone laughing each time she graced the stage. She has a lovely singing voice, treating us to the tunes of Mama Cass.
The clever, minimal scene changes must also be brought to the attention of the audience as they are very sweet and seamless. Some of the scenes began or ended with a tableau, and one in particular that really grabbed my attention was after Sandra wrestled Jamie to the ground and beat on him, which resulted in him sat crying when Ste enters from his house and asks if he is alright. To have frozen the play at that precise moment was a clever idea as it captured the friendship between the two boys perfectly and displayed the fact that Ste actually cares about Jamie (even though this is prior to the kiss).
Although this is a very strong cast, and as it develops I’m sure it will become hard to champion just one actor in the show as a highlight, for me at this stage, Jake Davies as Jamie is the stand-out performance. In short, he was brilliant. The choice to have him wander the stage during the interval as he waited for Ste (after the kiss) was a great choice. It captured the angst, worry, and fear that embodies a person after they make that choice to tell that first person – and usually it isn’t with a kiss!
Some people would deem this a play about being gay, but the script and this production in particular has something to offer to everyone. This is a play about courage and finding yourself – whoever that might be. Get down to the Arts Theatre in Leicester Square before the 25th May to see Beautiful Thing and see why, as Ste says, it’s never just a kiss…