Review of Beautiful Thing

St. Albert Gazette

Publication Date: 12 February, 2010

By Anna Borowiecki

Only the stonehearted would be unsympathetic to the predicament of two adolescent protagonists in Beautiful Thing, Jonathan Harvey’s eye-opening comedic drama about a boy who falls maddeningly in love with the boy next door.

Now playing at Walterdale Theatre until Feb. 20, Harvey’s elegantly structured script takes a zoom lens and observes the tumultuous lives of five people living in one of London’s social housing projects, a soul-sucking working class sprawl of poverty, violence and neglect.

Unlike the abundant 1996 movie, emerging director Justen Bennett has crafted an intimate two-hour slice of life that explodes with pain and anguish, yet is also tender and sensitive.

The two heroes are complete opposites. Fifteen-year-old Jamie (Doran Werner) is a skinny, sensitive sports-hating teenager that feels browbeaten by his over-protective mother Sandra (Amelia Duplessis), a single parent who manages a bar and has a taste for younger men.

On the other hand Ste (Joel Taras), short for Steven, is an athlete who rolls with the punches on the soccer field and is regularly beaten black and blue by a behind-the-scenes alcoholic father and sadistic brother.

On the cusp of manhood, there’s no light for them at the end of the tunnel, until they find each other during an innocent sleepover on Jamie’s bed — an emergency situation after Ste has once again been used as a punching bag. His crime was burning the tea of “bubble and squeak,” a British dish made from cabbage and potatoes.

While Sandra is clearly sympathetic towards Ste, she is bitterly quarrelsome with her other 16-year-old neighbour. Leah (Maura Frunza) is a neglected high-school dropout with a towering attitude who drinks, trips out on drugs and is completely up to her ears in Mama Cass’ music. She is determined to make her own kind of music, and the fact that Mama Cass died young is part of the attraction.

Rounding out the fivesome is Sandra’s current boyfriend Tony (Randy Brososky), a needy painter eight years her junior, keen to insert himself in their lives. Played by Brososky with a stage veteran’s aplomb, he even handles wearing nothing more than briefs and a frilly lady’s housecoat with comedic casualness.

Throughout this offbeat love story, Jamie worries about how his mother will react when she finds out he is gay, while Ste knows his father would quite literally kill him. Although Sandra normally rants, belittles and slams doors, the discovery actually cracks her encrusted shell, revealing a surprising caring nature. As she says, “I’m not going to put you out like an empty bottle in the morning.”

Tastefully directed, both Doran and Taras are evenly matched actors. Their characters’ love story grows slowly with shy tentative touches and hesitations into a gentle comfort level for the audience. In their own clumsy way, both the acne-conscious Jamie and the soccer-loving Ste seduce the audience and it is impossible not to root for them.

The set is minimalist with all the scenes taking place in front of the flats or Jamie’s bedroom. Designer Bob Forrow has fashioned a clever three-flat set resembling decrepit apartments that reek of uniformity and poverty. It is only the rich pink door and flowerpots in front of Sandra’s flat that suggests here lives a family that wants more out of life and is working to fulfil every members’ dreams.

While Beautiful Thing generally works, it is not without a few shortcomings. Although the actors have worked diligently with dialect coach Marliss Weber to simulate a working class London accent, all the actors at some point fall short. And the physical fight choreography where Sandra nearly pounds Jamie’s face into the concrete looks contrived and lacks spontaneity.

While the ending has a bit of a quick fix, you are left with the feeling that sometimes love can fix anything if you just follow Mama Cass’ recipe to “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”