Everyone lives cheek by jowl on this south London estate, but there’s still space for secrets. In Rosie Elnile’s smart design, the walkway sits bang at the front of the stage: we’re properly involved in this 30th anniversary revival of Jonathan Harvey’s breakthrough play.
Life isn’t pukka for the teenagers behind those doors. Leah has been excluded, Ste’s dad and brothers knock him about. Jamie, bright but bullied, lives with mum Sandra in the middle flat, with its jaunty cyan door and hanging basket, a household that won’t be ground down.
When Sandra is in a grump, you know about it. Shvorne Marks’ indomitable performance has a salty tongue, blazing heart and a scowl to freeze an unruly child’s blood. But she fights for Jamie and willingly offers Ste refuge when his dad’s fists are flying.
The boys top and tail in Jamie’s bed: soothing bruises with peppermint foot lotion, working towards a first kiss. Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran’s circumspect, gangly Jamie and Raphael Akuwudike’s sweet-smiling Ste tenderly chart these pre-digital teens navigating a way into identity, scouring the listings in Gay Times (Lily Savage the resplendent cover girl).
Harvey’s play goes to challenging places – violence offstage and on, the fear that lives might already be written off at 16. Anthony Simpson-Pike’s direction knows when to hold a silence, to feel the doubt beneath the banter. Yet even in the bleakest moments, Elliot Griggs’ lighting insists on a little magic, glowing with peach and raspberry.
There’s sweetness too in the performances – Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge as Sandra’s boyfriend is pitched on the edge of cringe (studied fist bumps, too-smooth moves), while Scarlett Rayner is fierce yet fragile as retro-obsessed Leah.
Harvey’s triumphant 1993 hit heralded a prolific tumble of plays during the subsequent decade; he’s also one of Corrie’s long-running writers and recently scripted Ian McKellen’s Mother Goose. Soap and panto, big heart and shameless gags: they were already there in Beautiful Thing. It’s a bumpy mix, but there’s also a stubborn utopian impulse – an insistence that love will find a way, that lives can take the shape they need.
At Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, until 7 October, then touring.