Arts Theatre, London, Saturday 18th May, 2013
Jonathan Harvey’s big-hearted comedy is twenty years old. I can’t believe it – especially having seen this anniversary production; it is still fresh as a daisy and works like a charm.
Set in 1993, what was a contemporary piece is slipping towards period – the pop culture references evoke laughs of nostalgia (Bob’s Full House anyone?) although allusions to musicals and show tunes will never grow old.
Suranne Jones leads a strong cast as 30-something single mother Sandra. She has a quick temper and a sharp tongue but her tough exterior shields the heart of a mother striving to make her way and provide for her teenage son. Jones is perfect – sarcastic one minute, on the attack the next, and then vulnerable and hurt. Jake Davies’s Jamie is that son, struggling to navigate his way through difficult teen years; he’s a bit of a loner, a victim of bullying. When sporty boy-next-door Ste (Danny-Boy Hatchard) seeks refuge from physical abuse in Jamie’s room, the two lads strike up a tentative relationship. It’s a touching story of first love and also a lovely story of first touching.
Handsome Oliver Farnworth is hilarious as Sandra’s current boyfriend Tony, an ‘artist’ who conducts himself like a trendy social worker or a teacher trying too hard to be down with the kids. Zaraah Abrahams is feisty and layered as Leah, a Mama Cass aficionado, excluded from school, rebelling against the system. She brings out the worst in Sandra – and everyone else, it seems – but her loneliness and lack of hope are almost palpable beneath the barbs and putdowns.
Director Nikolai Foster tackles the changing moods of Harvey’s volatile script: tenderness and violence struggle for supremacy, humour and emotional gut punches come and go in the flash of an eye. Intense emotions are never far from the surface. Life is tough in this downtrodden area but the characters are wholly human and not the demonised shirkers and scroungers our present-day vicious government would have you believe.
The growing relationship between the two young lads is sweet and funny, but the play is also about Sandra breaking free of expectations and making something of herself in the pub trade. She is not just a blonde barmaid anymore. When she breaks up with Tony, she is rejecting the expectation that she must have a man in her life, and when that man is an ineffectual ‘new man’ – well, who needs them?
The show is a delight from start to finish, a witty script well-played by all. If EastEnders was a tenth as good as this, I’d tune in. The love of two teenage boys in a block of Thamesmead flats is indeed a beautiful thing, like Sandra’s hard-won hanging basket outside her grubby front door.
And it’s always good to hear Wincey Willis get a name check.