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11 Feb 2002

beautiful thing

Fridae reviews a Singaporean adaptation of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing which tells the story of 2 teenage boys finding love; and the prejudice that not only exists in laws, but in people's hearts.

Toy Factory kicks off its 2002 programme with a British play, Beautiful Thing, presented in two versions, Mandarin and English.

Ste (played by Kevin Murphy, right) is Jamie's (Caleb Goh) classmate and next-door neighbour
The English version is presently being staged and is directed by Toy Factory's new associate Artistic Director, Beatrice Chia, in her second directorial project with the Ensemble, following her explosive and well-received debut, Shopping and F***ing, last year. The Mandarin version, directed by Artistic Director Goh Boon Teck, ended its very successful run on 19th January and will return on 26th February due to popular demand.

Written by Jonathan Harvey, Beautiful Thing captures the heart-singing joy of first love that springs up in the unforgiving terrain of life in a working-class estate. The drama is filled with realist grit and edgy dialogue, but Harvey's characters maintain their dignity and optimism throughout.

The convincing core of the play is the adolescents' heady love but the compassion and tender concern that their relationship throws into relief in the lives around them is also worthy of note. Celebratory without being twee, under Chia's assured helmsmanship, Beautiful Thing brims over with an infectious youthful exuberance.

In Beautiful Thing, 15-year-old Jamie (played by Caleb Goh) is finding it increasingly difficult to fit in at school, which worries his mother Sandra (Janice Koh), who has been struggling to keep her single-parent household together since forever. Sandra is currently going out with Tony (Mark Richmond).

Ste (Kevin Murphy) is Jamie's classmate and next-door neighbour. Good at sports and popular at school, Ste nonetheless has his own troubles at home, where he is beaten and abused by his drunkard father.

Jamie and Ste awaken to love when Ste starts spending nights at Jamie's after a particularly ferocious beating by his dad. Leah (Emma Yong) is Jamie and Ste's friend. A school drop-out, the only thing that occupies her is her obsession with Mama Cass and her brand of groovy music.

Life for the characters in the drama is far from easy but while they might bitch and complain, there is not much indulgent self-pity. Life is not elsewhere; it is simply whatever you get to work with.

The stellar cast work wonderfully as an ensemble. Goh's Jamie is the more emotionally open of the pair, with his flickering emotions clear as day on his face. Occasionally, this translated into a slightly less nuanced portrayal; his over-eagerness to please Ste, before their love is realised, came across at points less like a schoolboy's enthusiasm than a certain rigidity of expression.

However, this was more than made up for by the truly dramatic, lightning changes of emotion Goh achieves, especially in his combustible relationship with his mother.
Kevin Murphy, recently seen in his movie debut in Chicken Rice War, is a revelation as Ste, his first lead role. His range of emotions is as delicate as it is precise. He averts his gaze from the other characters whenever they refer to his abuse by his father, but the audience catches the full poignancy of the pained, wish-I-were-elsewhere light of his eyes.

Ste (played by Kevin Murphy, right) is Jamie's (Caleb Goh) classmate and next-door neighbour
In one memorable scene, he drops by at Jamie's house as usual, but when he realises that Sandra knows about them, he thinks that his father will find out as well. His transition from routine cheerfulness to howling despair is immediate and profound.

Together, Goh and Murphy capture the teenage volatility of emotions and the aching tenderness of first love. In their first sexual encounter, bumbling awkwardness, the careful doffing of clothes, shared excitement, sensual revelation and dawning love are all played out without words or music and with complete conviction.

As accomplished as all the casts are, Janice Koh as Sandra gives, for this reviewer, the most riveting performance.

Sandra has powder-blue eyeshadow, too-tight curls and clothes, and a string of boyfriends. She is coarse as salt and a walking clich. But her cynicism is a defence, a self-protective habit - ingrained in the bone but nonetheless easily eroded by the demands of love as she fights to support her son and later, to communicate her love to him when he is afraid to tell her he is gay.

Mother and son fight and cry with sudden, frequent violence, but Koh communicates both Sandra's strength and inadequacies admirably. The mother will be the stronger for as long as her son needs her.

Mark Richmond's Tony is a dim bulb, 27 going on 19, and far less savvy than anyone else. Richmond milks his considerable likeability to make the most of his character's one-liners, perhaps holding the moment too long occasionally in this way.

However, Richmond captures Tony's sincerity towards Sandra and his overall good intentions with an earnest, hang-dog openness.

Emma Yong's Leah is a mean minx but ultimately, a good friend. Yong is generous on stage; Leah's own loneliness, bitterness and youthful energy are subtly portrayed and complement the central love story. Yong is also a superb comic actor, with her renditions of Mama Cass in performance.

Beautiful Thing makes you feel the exhilaration of that first flush of youthful love. It is a play with heart and warmth.

Beautiful Thing
Date: 25 Jan to 10 Feb, 15 Feb to 24 Feb (no performance on Mondays)
Venue: Toy Factory Theatrette
17A Smith Street
Price: Tickets at S$18 (free seating)
Booking: Call Toy Factory at 222 1526 or fax 221 6285 or
Email: toyfactory@mail.com

Singapore

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