Beautiful Thing: The Seminal Gay Play Retold Through a Black Queer Lens

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Joshua Asaré (Jamie) and Raphael Akuwudike (Ste)
Joshua Asaré (Jamie) and Raphael Akuwudike (Ste) in Beautiful Thing at Stratford EastPhotography by Myah Jeffers, Graphic design by Jed Berry

Rising stars Raphael Akuwudike and Joshua Asaré speak about their portrayal of Beautiful Thing’s much-loved characters Jamie and Ste, and the play’s enduring impact

Few plays are quite as moving as Beautiful Thing. Written by Jonathan Harvey, it tells the story of two working-class boys from a south London council estate, Jamie and Ste, who fall in love and gradually embrace their gayness. It’s a funny, uplifting but also unflinching queer love story that has touched successive generations since it premiered at London’s Bush Theatre in 1993. Andrew Garfield and Jonathan Bailey are among the many actors to have cut their teeth in previous stage productions, and seeking out the 1996 film adaptation – also written by Harvey and directed by Hettie Macdonald – has become an LGBTQ+ rite-of-passage.

Now, the original play is returning to London – as well as Manchester and Leeds – for a 30th-anniversary revival directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike. “It’s just a really seminal piece,” says the director, whose recent credits include the National Theatre’s enormously acclaimed Grenfell: in the Words of Survivors. “The characters are so richly drawn that you love being around them. There’s something really hopeful about it but it also has this quiet radicalism.”

Harvey was working as a teacher when he wrote Beautiful Thing. He conceived the play partly as a riposte to the reductive and dehumanising way that queer sexuality was spoken about when MPs debated Section 28 – a homophobic piece of legislation that banned the “promotion” of same-sex relationships in schools – and the gay age of consent. “The rhetoric used in parliament was so archaic, with words like ’buggery’ and ’sodomy’,” he recalled recently. “I wanted to write a play about two boys falling in love, and give it a happy ending.”

Though Beautiful Thing is now, inevitably, a period piece – it’s set in the pre-internet era and the boys don’t have mobile phones – it remains all too relevant. “We were in rehearsals when we heard that two [queer] men had been attacked in Clapham,” Simpson-Pike notes sadly. “And actually, a lot of the arguments that were around at the time of Section 28, which were [rooted in] a sort of moral panic around HIV-Aids, are now being refashioned and used against the trans community.”

Simpson-Pike’s revival also strikes a blow for representation by telling this iconic and historically white story through a Black queer lens. Rising stars Raphael Akuwudike and Joshua Asaré were originally cast as Ste and Jamie, but sadly Asaré has now had to withdraw due to personal circumstances. From September 13, Jamie will be played by Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran, who recently won the Ian Charleson Award recognising the UK’s best performance by an actor under 30 in a classical role for his turn as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. The cast is completed by Shvorne Marks as Jamie’s formidable mother Sandra, Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge as her on-off partner Tony, and Scarlett Rayner as the boys’ raucous friend Leah.

“I hope that Black queers and queers of colour are able to see themselves reflected on stage in a seminal piece of queer work that actually has a happy ending,” says Simpson-Pike. “And that is somehow still a very radical thing, because in art, queer characters are nearly always being killed off or given some kind of traumatic ending.”

Here, shortly before Asaré left the production, he and Akuwudike spoke about their portrayal of these much-loved characters and the play’s enduring impact.

Nick Levine: For each of you, what is the ‘way in’ to portraying Jamie and Ste?

JA: There are so many similarities between me and Jamie, it’s actually just weird. Like, we’re both from council estates [and] raised by single mothers. The relationship between Jamie and Sandra is very similar to the relationship I have with my mum. Like, we’re close, but maybe a bit too close, so friction can happen. And the way [the characters] talk is very much how I talk with my family and my friends. It’s that thing [where] the closer you are to someone, the more license you feel you have to give them a bit of a negging.

RA: With Ste, he’s quite conflict-averse, but there’s also an anger that comes out sometimes. [He has] that thing of keeping a lid on things, which I’ve found to be useful. I can see that he really values peace because he’s come from quite a turbulent background – not that I’ve come from a particularly turbulent background; I’ve had quite a nice upbringing as far as I’m concerned. But I feel like that [trait] has helped me to understand where he’s at. Because he’s from a really, really volatile home, he’s seeking out a kind of sanctuary.

NL: What do you think draws Jamie and Ste together?

JA: This is going to sound so unromantic, but being queer myself, I think you do just find [other queer] people to connect with as you’re growing up. But apart from that, there’s something missing in each of them that the other kind of needs. Jamie’s school life isn’t great – he’s bullied, but only because he’s comfortable being himself and standing in his truth. Whereas Ste is Mr. Popular at school, but has all this inner turmoil because he’s having to put on this facade. So when they’re both alone in Jamie’s bedroom, I feel like they have a moment to give each other a little bit of what the other needs. Which is lovely.

RA: Ste really loves the fact that Jamie is confidently living the way he feels inside. And he really values it when he goes to Jamie’s house and sees all the culture Jamie’s got. That’s really exciting [for him] because the lifestyle Ste’s had to develop hasn’t come from choice. His dad is this alcoholic guy who’s never home and his mum isn’t present, so it’s a very kind of male, toxic environment – toxic, specifically, because of the violence. So he’s never really been able to express himself. But I also think that when Ste looks at Jamie and himself, he sees skills that he has developed that Jamie hasn’t had to because of his more loving upbringing. So like with any couple, they kind of counterbalance one another.

“For me, Beautiful Thing is first and foremost a love story. But then having this element of us both having Black heritage, it adds another dimension” – Raphael Akuwudike

NL: Why do you think this play is still so relevant and moving 30 years later?

JA: I think it tells the classic “coming out” story in a way that everyone can relate to. Like, we all have our different experiences, but this play [captures] the inner turmoil and the difficulty of having to say those words. I also think the characters are very relatable. Come on, we all know a Sandra! It’s a really funny play, but it’s also quite dark – every character is going through hard times. But because there’s a multi-dimensionality to them, they’re still able to have a laugh. And the council estate backdrop is perfect because there’s so much community between these characters, even if they don’t always like each other.

RA: I agree. It’s a community story, isn’t it? And it’s still funny because it’s rooted in truth. Obviously, times have changed and things have developed in terms of gay rights, but the play still has an important message about the relationships these characters have and the burdens they have to bear. It’s a fundamentally human story, and hopefully one day it will become less important, but it still seems important to me now.

NL: This revival of Beautiful Thing is the first to put Black queer people front and centre. Does that make it feel even more important to you?

JA: Oh, I think it’s incredibly important. My first introduction to Beautiful Thing was watching the film when I was 16, and I related to it simply because they were queer. They were also white, but so were all the other queer characters on TV at the time, so it wasn’t a barrier for me. But I know it can be [a barrier] for some people and I like the idea that us [playing] two people of colour in a queer relationship will connect the play to a new audience. The story is exactly the same [as it has always been], but we’ve sprinkled in a few things here and there that will better speak to the experience of a Black queer person.

RA: For me, Beautiful Thing is first and foremost a love story. But then having this element of us both having Black heritage, it adds another dimension. It’s still the same play, but I think this probably is a slightly different version as a result of that. And I have to say I feel very, very lucky to be a part of it.

Beautiful Thing plays at Theatre Royal Stratford East from September 8 to October 7, before playing at Leeds Playhouse from October 18 to 28 and HOME Manchester from October 31 to November 11.