Writer: Jonathan Harvey
Director: Nikolai Foster
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Transport yourself back to the early 1990s to Thamesmead, a rundown largely working class estate in south London. The residents have their own problems to deal with – drug abuse, anti-social behaviour, just trying to rub along. Central to the story are Sandra, a thirty-five year old barmaid, her latest partner, Tony, and her son Jamie. Sandra tries her best to be a good mother to Jamie despite her penchant for a good time. Played with great sensitivity by Charlie Brooks, Sandra, for all her faults, does a decent job with Jamie. Latest squeeze, Tony, is earnest and really wants to make a go of things with Sandra. He tries so hard – too hard – to get on Jamie’s good side. Sensitively played by Gerard McCarthy, Tony is good at the core and does his slightly awkward best to support this new family. And there’s Jamie. Not a bad lad, but not typical either. He gets bullied at school because he doesn’t quite fit in; he doesn’t enjoy the things the other boys do. Sam Jackson’s Jamie is entirely believable and sympathetic.
To one side lives Leah, excluded from school – the system’s fault, not hers, obviously – an aimless drug user but ultimately a good friend. Vanessa Babirye makes Leah fully rounded, bringing both tragedy and humour to the rôle. A scene in which she, under the influence of a mystery substance, believes herself to be her heroine, Cass Elliot is rather frightening in its surreality.
The final resident is Ste, Jamie’s 16-year-old neighbour. He lives with his abusive drunkard father and drug-dealing brother. He tries so hard to fit in, excelling at sport despite not feeling comfortable with it, trying to hide the signs of abuse, living a life perpetually in fear. Thomas Law is outstanding as the haunted young man forever on the edge. Into this not terribly promising background comes a truly beautiful thing; a simply beautiful story of young love told with beautiful simplicity.
Jamie and Ste are both struggling to get to grips with their own feelings, wants and desires when they are thrown together by chance – again in fear, Ste seeks sanctuary with Sandra. With nowhere else to sleep, he top-and-tails with Jamie. This is repeated and the two boys, awkwardly reach out to each other. The contrast of Ste’s joy at being together and his fear of exposure gives the story much of its backbone. The boys, confused, initially try to deny their natures but it is not to be. When Sandra hears they have been seen at a well-known gay pub Brooks gives a towering performance as she moves through the stages of grief at lightning pace, but ultimately proves her unconditional love for Jamie. A truly moving and poignant scene. As if our emotions haven’t been stirred up enough, Law’s rather frightening and true-to-life reaction when he fears Sandra might tell his father is a masterclass; this young man is quite clearly in fear for his life.
The strength of the play is in the writing of Jonathan Harvey. The dialogue is believable, the emotions tangible. The story has a graceful pace entirely in keeping with the boys’ growing awareness and affection. Sensitive direction from Nikolai Foster, supported by a minimal set and good use of lighting, ensures the story steers clear of schmaltzy sentimentality. Yes, this is a play about a burgeoning gay relationship between boys dscovering their sexuality who eventually find comfort in each other. But it’s not a ‘gay play’: it doesn’t seek to shock (though there are aspects, Ste’s home life, for example, that are shocking), nor is there any political posturing. It is sensitive, touching and life-affirming with a timeless central theme. All of these characters have value, each is redeemable, they all deserve to find happiness where they can. Like the rest of us.
Photo: Anton Belmonte| Runs until: 11th April