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Mr Monkey sees Beautiful Thing at the Royal Exchange Theatre, 14th November

Mr Monkey looking at the Beautiful Thing poster outside the theatre
Ste (Tommy Vine) and Jamie (Matthew Tennyson) embrace (Royal Exchange Theatre production photo)
Mr Monkey looking at offstage scenery before the performance Mr Monkey scampered into Manchester for the press night of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

After checking the poster outside, Mr Monkey picked up his humans' tickets, then scurried up to the Mezzanine Gallery to see First Love. On his way to the auditorium, Mr Monkey spotted a bed hiding beneath one of the external stairs and guessed it would appear on stage sometime. He always enjoys finding loose scenery lying around.

Beautiful Thing is set in a corner of the Thamesmead Estate in London, during the hot summer of 1993. Centring on young Jamie coming to terms with being gay, the play is about families and personal relationships. Jamie, Ste and Leah live in adjacent flats; all three have only one parent each, though only Jamie's mum, Sandra, appears on stage.

Mr Monkey thought the staging was very effective. A massive globe, with the Thames clearly visible, hung over the stage. The stage itself consisted solely of the small front gardens of the ground floor flats of a close, giving the audience the feeling of being in one of the flats, looking out on their neighbours' lifes. The sound throughout was subtle but effective - distant police sirens and passing aircraft somehow sounding summery; when he shut his eyes, Mr Monkey felt as if he were sitting out in his back garden on a hot day, not inside a theatre on a wet November evening.

All the actors played their roles extremely well and captivated the audience from the start. Mr Monkey felt that the two strongest characters were Sandra (Claire-Louise Cordwell) and Leah (Tara Hodge), the male characters seemingly rather in their shadows. The play is surprisingly funny, and Sandra and Leah provide more than their share of the humour. That said, Matthew Tennyson as Jamie and Tommy Vine as Ste formed the emotional core of the play and delivered moments of tenderness throughout; however much Sandra and Leah shout, the play is definitely about Jamie and Ste. Alex Price played the role of Tony, Sandra's boyfriend, with humour and a slightly ambivalent calmness.

Given that the play was set in Thamesmead long after it had ceased to be the brave new world of social housing it was built as, and given the issues confronting the characters, Mr Monkey found Beautiful Thing a strangely uplifting experience, full of naturally delivered humour as well as heartache. Having the Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus (who are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year) provide a joyous and somewhat surreal finale by filling the stage and singing Dream a little dream of me was an inspired touch, and Mr Monkey was not the only theatre-goer to be singing to himself as he left.
Tony (Alex Price) and Sandra (Claire-Louise Cordwell) relax outside with cold beer on a hot day (Royal Exchange Theatre production photo)

Beautiful Thing runs until December 3rd 2011.

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