Theatre Review from the March 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard
Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey
Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing is a success. Starting life at the Bush Theatre it has subsequently played in Leeds (at the West Yorkshire playhouse), and in London (at the Donmar Warehouse), before finally making it into the West End.
Critics have been enthusiastic, using words like "honest" and "vivid" to describe plot and dialogue. When I attended recently an uncharacteristically young (for the West End) audience showed similar enthusiasm and delight. Yet as laughter rumbled round the elegant theatre I felt initial surprise, then disappointment and, finally, anger.
Beautiful Thing is packed with characters straight out of Eastenders. The action may take place in a scruffy block of high-rise flats in south London, but those familiar with the antics of the residents of Albert Square will quickly be reminded of the ugliness, the meanness of character and aspiration, the sordid pointlessness of it all. "This is how life is", the author seems to be saying; "this is what life must be like", he seems to be suggesting by implication. If people are selfish and unknowing, out of touch both with themselves and the larger world of which they are a part, this is to be expected; it is "natural". The possibility that people might have learned to be selfish, acquisitive and repressed - that they might even have learnt how to remain ignorant - is not considered.
True, in the maelstrom of indifference, stupidity and no little malevolence which Harvey describes, there grows a loving relationship between two young men - presumably the Beautiful Thing referred to in the title. But this is no metaphor pointing to the possibility of larger transformations. The world continues as before: the other characters make no significant discoveries; and even for the loving couple the rest of life remains insufferably the same.
Although the play is described as a modern fairy story Harvey sells us short. The little love affair he describes could have offered a pointer to the redemption and liberation of others; of changes and transformations at many levels. By eschewing such possibilities the play, perhaps unwittingly, reinforces the perception that such things are impossible. Our vision of the world is thus diminished rather than expanded, and we are imprisoned rather than set free. Not so much a fairy story as a nightmare.