Julian Eaves reviews Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing at Above The Stag’s newly opened Vauxhall venue.
Above The Stag,
8th June 2018
This is a great choice of play to mark the arrival of this terrific theatre into its new home. Having begun life in a room over a pub in Victoria, and then been resident under an obscure Vauxhall railway arch, the name has now moved to its third address: two much grander and deeper and fully renovated railway arches right on the Albert Embankment, directly across the road from MI6, with trees and a grassy lawn on the doorstep – and the rural expanse of Spring Gardens, complete with its City Farm, gastro-pub and luxurious tea-house out back, behind the venue. A beautiful thing, indeed.
The new venue boasts a larger, fixed seating auditorium (currently hosting the debut presentation), as well as a smaller, flexible studio space (soon to be completed), and there is a spacious bar (that will shortly be welcoming visitors during the day), as well as rehearsal and office space. It is a splendid addition to the London theatre scene, and – I suppose – technically counts as the most recent arrival in the capital’s rosta of performance spaces. It is also another feather in the cap of the gentrification of Vauxhall.
Jonathan Harvey’s evergreen 1980’s comedy about young love blossoming on a Thamesmead housing estate is a charming way to inaugurate this house. It offers designer David Shields a glorious opportunity to show off the capability of the place to use a substantial box set in his recreation of the 1960s brutalism of the estate, one that responds pretty quickly to Steven Dexter’s disciplined and tightly controlled direction: there isn’t much room left over for the residents, the aesthetic seens to be telling us, and every available inch is used to the full, from kicking a ball around to a skilfully executed fight. People here are forced to rub up against each other in a kind of social frottage (as Jamie explains, the French word for cheese).
Chief amongst these residents is the brilliantly cast Kyla Frye as the relentlessly on-the-go matriarch-of-one, Sandra. Her performance is likely to be considered one of the stand-out events of the Fringe/Off West End year, so completely does she make every word, every beat of the part live and breathe with the determined energy of a character who has never had anything but struggle on her hands, and who has never, never given in and buckled under the strain, and who doesn’t tolerate anybody else attempting to do anything of the kind.
As her comparatively spoiled and slightly disaffected musical-loving son, Jamie, Joshua Asare describes a journey from frigid dissociation and sour teenage ambivalence to affectionate engagement with the football playing boy-next-door, Ste, played with stolid vulnerability by Ryan Anderson. But the chief observer of these observeds is not mum, but the Mamas-and-the-Paps aficionada, also living next door, the foul-mouthed Leah, given sharply elfin grace by Phoebe Vigor.
Well, I say she’s gobby, but you should hear how Sandra gives her as good as she gets in scene after scene of competitive slagging-off, where Harvey’s linguistic gymnastics really get into their Olympic stride. His jokes – almost – never date. There is a sparky freshness about his script that even now makes us smile, both at the crass cheapness of so much of the sentiment (especially in the first half), and also at the refined exactness of its articulation. The mirth is also expertly placed and used with ‘lavish economy’, making us admire its profusion, while simultaneously allowing us the time and space to do so, to take in its artful twists and turns with the generosity of ease needed to appreciate its craft. Sandra also has a fellah she is keeping – in every sense – an emasculated ‘new man’, Tony (Kieran Mortell), who is about as much good to have around as Ste’s unseen but briefly heard dunken, aggressive dad (uncredited).
Jack Weir lights it all with a good eye for the depth and scale of the location, as well as the need to express the poetic ‘transformation’ of this world through the transcendent power of love. And Andy Hill masters the much needed interpolations of Sixties’ West Coast balladry, and other sounds that help elevate this dreary world into the extraordinary, with consummate skill.
Peter Bull, the in-house producer, has put it all together and brought into this new realm his carefully assembled body of patrons, whose sustained support and encouragement, in every imaginable way, has enabled this theatre to become what it now is: the country’s only bespoke LGBT theatre and with its own purpose-built premises. Looking ahead, the other announced programming seems designed to continue to coax its established clientele to follow it to its new situation, and to transfer its sense of geographic loyalty in that way. Whether that audience alone will be sufficient to enable the theatre to keep growing remains to be seen, but the intial reaction is good. Their followers clearly love what they are getting, and are filling the seats to capacity. That is great: their goodwill is palpable. Yes, possibly the fluency of the production is not quite all there yet: it always takes time to get to know a new space, to discover its particular personality and quirks; added to that, a technical hitch on opening night held up proceedings by half an hour, a mishap that is sure to have unsettled the cast, who were not as assured and at ease at the start as they then became through the course of the performance. No matter. There are bound to be teething troubles to get through before people really work out how to play it to its very best advantage, and this is a most encouraging start.