Beautiful Thing at the Tobacco Factory

Beautiful Thing at the Tobacco Factory

‘Love sought is good, but given unsought is better’ Act 1, Scene 3, Twelfth Night

‘Weekends are busy for Sally, juggling a hectic social life with time for that special man in her life. Her partner is another actor, but she is coy about revealing his name…’

Somewhere in a South East London council estate in the mid-90s, two sixteen year old boys sit cross legged on a bed reading Hello magazine. Steven is staying the night to shelter from his abusive father. Jamie struggles with romantic feelings for his new bed fellow. The tone should be sober and gritty, and yet the audience is in stitches.

Mike Tweddle’s interpretation of Jonathon Harvey’s tirelessly celebrated script is as charming and funny as ever. Ted Reilly as Jamie is a floppy haired, doe-eyed youth, trying desperately to seem macho and tough and – above all – straight. His failure is endearing to watch, for all his swearing and playing hooky. The changes we witness in his character throughout the play are subtle but profound; he drops his swagger and his voice softens as he opens himself to the possibility of a relationship with another boy. When he finally summons the courage to wear his ‘hardly fetching’ glasses, you want to cheer.

Phoebe Thomas is Sandra, Jamie’s mother, cheerfully and loudly deflating his bravado by dubbing him “the boy who used to send me valentines!” Thomas’s characterisation is energetic and flamboyant but always focussed. Her beady-eyed sharpness hints at her struggle as a single parent with no money – “I went robbing for that boy” she declares at one point, not without a trace of grim pride in her voice. She seems like a feistier descendant of Mike Leigh’s iconic Beverly in ‘Abigail’s Party’, from her bright ginger hair and tight tops to a domesticity that manifests itself in passionate pride in her favourite plant pot. “It’s engraved”, she announces ceremoniously. “I won that basket in the Southeast Thames Barmaid of the Year Award.” Finn Hanlon as Tony is her delightfully airy fairy paramour, an enamoured artist who proves surprisingly capable when the going gets tough.

Harvey’s script, at times, turns characters into caricatures: it is initially hard to invest in Sandra when she marches about calling fifteen year old Leah (Amy-Leigh Hickman) a ‘slapper’ and joking about the fact that Steven’s father ‘leathers him’. At one point she strangles Leah with a hosepipe; the other characters don’t seem to bat an eyelid. This seems to be a common feature of the writing; it will undercut its own realism in order to provoke a laugh or find a punchline. It is tight and witty and succinct, but to an extent that at times it feels affected and non-naturalistic. Jamie and Sandra engage in a physical fight at one point, complete with hair pulling and face slapping, which seems to spring up from nowhere.

Tweddle’s direction embraces this heightened naturalism, though. Get Singing Community Choir punctuate the action with 90s hits, representing the tight and sometimes suffocating community of the estate. Tobacco Factory’s in-the-round performance space means you get to watch the reactions of the rest of the audience, from wry smiles when ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen’ plays to near-tears when Steven and Jamie dance to ‘Dream a Little Dream’. The outcome is a larger-than-life tale of forbidden love in a bleak setting, where every laugh or joke is an act of rebellion and survival. It can be forgiven, then, for seeming dramatic and unbelievable – all the best stories are.


Four stars

Millie Haswell

For an interview with the cast, click here