After witnessing Stephen Heatley’s production of Beautiful Thing at the University of British Columbia’s Frederic Wood Theatre, one has to wonder what he was thinking.
“I wanted a play that would give them an acting challenge,” says Heatley, the new theatre production chair for the University of British Columbia. “All of the characters in this play are working class, and they feel things deeply but they aren’t very articulate about what’s going on in their lives. They are more impulsive and they often don’t say what they really mean and that’s a terrific challenge for a director and an actor.”
The story centres around five unhappy Brits living in the Thamesmead neighbourhood in East London. There’s Jamie and Ste, young neighbours and lovers just discovering themselves, their sexuality and each other with various parts excitement and fear; Jamie’s mother Sandra dealing with her fleeting youth in the face of raising a now out gay teen; her boyfriend Tony, the layabout hippie who is always underfoot; and their outrageous neighbour Leah.
“The story is about two boys working out how to survive in an unsympathetic world, and the other three characters, who are all straight, are also trying to sort things out, so I find it quite well balanced that way,” Heatley says. “The boys are the centre of the story, but the fact that Jamie’s mother is trying to get it together with her job and her son, it’s a lot of stuff for her to sort out. There is an interesting tension there in the play for her.”
Heatley, who is gay himself, says he wanted to give his audience something to remember.
“I thought it was also time I flew my own personal sexuality identity flag and do a show that had queer content, and I just think it’s a fantastic story,” Heatley says. “I think it’s a play that people will want to see.”
Unfortunately for Heatley, his troupe of five actors failed mightily.
To say the acting was poor would be an understatement of extreme proportions. The majority of the cast spent the 105-minute production using absurdly over-exaggerated hand motions and quite possibly the worst faux-English accents ever to be heard by man.
The worst offender has to be the lead, Kevin Kraussler, who portrayed the shy and questioning Jamie. Kraussler played the character as if he were five, not 15. The contorted facial reactions and infantile speech patterns were incomprehensible. Even the serious moments of the play were ruined by Kraussler’s atrocious ‘crying.’
Not to be outdone, Olivia Rameau, who took on the daunting role of Leah, drove the character into the ground. Rameau was unable to maintain her East London accent for more than a few words, occasionally lapsing into a cross between a Jamaican and cockney monstrosity. She also suffered from the same bizarre and childlike sweeping hand motions and abrupt turns that made the whole production seem disjointed.
Maybe the most frustrating of all was Ira Cooper who played Jamie’s love interest Ste. He, too, rendered his character childlike in a way that did not at all do justice to the film. In the play’s most tender scene, for example, where he and Jamie first have sex, Ste seems eager to continue their exploration, while in the film version, Ste is far more hesitant and concerned about the possible implications of the moment.
And in the play’s final and most well known scene, Cooper doesn’t hesitate to dance with Jamie outside of their flat, while in the film version, you can clearly see the internal conflict raging within Ste, before he finally decides to embrace himself and his boyfriend and dances with Jamie in public.
Not all the blame can be put on the actors, of course. Heatley earns more than his fair share by turning so many crucial dramatic scenes into comedic romps.
In the scene where Jamie finally comes out to his mother, for example, Heatley treats the tender moment as a comedy device. The moving exchange captured in the film is replaced with a smarmy attitude that destroys the scene on stage. The same can be said a few moments later when it appears that Leah is going to attempt suicide.
The play’s only real saving grace is Evan Frayne as Tony. Heatley did a fantastic job tweaking Tony’s character for the better.
Still, if you’re looking to see Beautiful Thing you would be better off staying at home and watching it on DVD.