BEAUTIFUL THING
Sound Theatre, London W1
Opened 25 July, 2006
***

The periodic "West End in crisis" stories may be tosh, but the sector is successful only within certain terms. It took a reality TV series to entice a producer into giving any new play an outing here, and the result, On The Third Day, is to close after five weeks. Meanwhile, the newest of the few studio-sized venues in the area, Sound, is to shut its doors after little more than a year and two management regimes, to make way for a hotel. Its final presentation is the return, almost entirely recast, of a show from the beginning of this year.

It is amazing that Jonathan Harvey's breakthrough play has not been staged professionally in London in over a decade. It is such an appealing box-office prospect a feelgood play about teenage gay awakening, with a perkiness and sentiment that prevent it from alienating any but the most censorious of straights that its neglect even on the fringe is a mystery. Having said that, the passage of time has lessened both its comedic bite and its emotional and social edge.

Director Toby Frow's second cast feels more evenly matched than January's. Jonathan Bailey as 15-year-old Jamie and Gavin Brocker as classmate and neighbour Ste succeed in making the audience hold its breath as they fumblingly acknowledge their feelings for each other at the end of the first act, although they still do not achieve that exquisite combination of awkwardness and emotional suspense. Carli Norris makes Jamie's mother Sandra flinty, unsure of how to express her concern other than in briskness and sarky banter. Michelle Terry is a palpable hit as Leah, misfit and teenage Mama Cass fanatic, except for a bad-trip scene in which she is unnecessarily kitted out as her idol, complete with grotesque shades and padding. Steven Meo is likewise magnificent as Sandra's latest lover Tony, the kind of ineffectual specimen my sainted mother would have called "a big drink of milk".

I felt readier to engage with the characters this time, as if more were at stake for them and me, but it still wasn't sufficient. Without enough of a sense of danger or risk, the contrasting joy is also diminished, and what remains is a cosy pat on the back rather than an exultant punch in the air.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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