The story is set in Thamesmead, a working class area of South East London dominated by post-war council estates.
Jamie, a teen who is infatuated with his classmate, Ste, has to deal with his single mother Sandra, who is pre-occupied with ambitious plans to run her own pub and with an ever-changing string of lovers, the latest of whom is Tony, a neo-hippie. Sandra finds herself at odds with Leah, a sassy and rude neighbour who has been expelled from school, does several drugs, and constantly listens and sings along to her mother's Cass Elliot records. While Jamie's homosexuality remains concealed, his introvert nature and dislike of football are reason enough for his classmates to bully him at every opportunity.
Ste, who is living together with his drug-dealing brother and abusive, alcoholic father in the flat next door, is one night beaten by his father so badly that Sandra takes pity and lets him sleep over. In the absence of a third bed, Ste has to make do with sleeping 'top-to-toe' with Jamie. On the second night they share a bed: after a massage and a minor conversation, the boys soon change sleeping arrangements and Jamie kisses Ste for the first time.
The next morning, Ste panics and leaves before Jamie awakens, avoiding him for days. Jamie works up the nerve to steal a Gay Times from a newsagent, apparently starting to accept his sexuality and affection for Ste. Jamie finally spots Ste at a nearby party and confronts him; they prepare to leave together. The party ends badly, with Sandra taking vengeance on Leah for gossiping, who then threatens to 'spill the beans' about Ste and Jamie and confesses to having covered up for Ste in front of his father and brother. Ste reacts poorly, angrily rejecting Jamie and running away.
Slowly, Ste accepts Jamie's love and their relationship begins to develop as they visit a gay pub together. Sandra follows them and discovers their secret, and the story reaches its climax as a bad trip by Leah (on an unnamed drug) precipitates Sandra's breakup with Tony; the news of Sandra's new job comes out; and Sandra confronts Ste and Jamie. Sandra comes to accept her son's relationship.
The play ends with the two boys slow-dancing in the courtyard of their council flats to the Cass Elliot song "Dream a Little Dream of Me", while a guarding Sandra dances defiantly at their side with Leah as the local residents look on; some of them shocked, some of them enjoying the moment themselves.
February 1998 (Australian premiere): Directed by Michael Darragh and produced by Make Believe Productions in Sydney. An official Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival event, the critically acclaimed independent production starred Simon Corfield (Jamie), Natalie Murray (Leah), Fiona Harris (Sandra), Andrew Wallace (Ste) and Charles Kevin (Tony).
16 May 1998 (American premiere): Produced by Famous Door Theater Company in Chicago, Illinois.
September 2007: South London Theatre This was the first performance by actors of the same age (and younger) as the characters they portrayed. Directed by Elaine Heath, produced by Stuart Draper of Melmoth. Starring David Clements as Jamie, Tom Bucher as Ste, Rita Goodhead as Leah, Fiona Cullen as Sandra and Chris Learmouth as Tony.
11 January 2008 (German premiere): Junges Theater Bonn. Notably this is a performance with actors being the same age as the characters they portray.
February 2008: Soulstice Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, directed by Mark E. Schuster. The cast features Zach Kunde as Jamie, Chris Darnieder as Ste, Jillian Smith as Sandra, Amanda Carson as Leah, and Doug Giffin as Tony.
1 May 2008: Directed and acted by Fever theatre at Hemsworth Arts and Community College. The production features Kyle Crookes, (Jamie) Aaron Peace, (Tony) Joss Froggatt, (Ste) Stacey Young, (Leah) and Lauren Raynor (Sandra). The script has been cut to a thirty-minute runtime.
26 June 2008: Produced by EM-LOU PRODUCTIONS at the Battersea Arts Centre, Directed by Peter Darney, featuring Harry Bradshaw as Jamie, Niall Phillips as Ste, Anna Stolli as Sandra, Finn Hanlon as Tony, Louise Tyler as Leah.
15 July 2008: Produced by the Hillyer Theatre Company at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham, directed by Jack Fayter, with Richard Loftus as Jamie, Joel Stubbs as Ste, Evelyne Beech as Sandra, Megan Travers as Leah and Steve Roberts as Tony.
12 December 2008: Produced and directed by Michael Darragh at Zhijiang Dream Factory, Shanghai, China. Featuring Joakim Eriksson (Jamie), Sophie Lloyd (Leah), Christy Shapiro (Sandra), Derek Kwan (Ste) and JP Lopez (Tony).
9 January to 1 March 2009 (Paris/French language premiere): Le Vingtième Théâtre, Paris. Directed by Kester Lovelace. A Drama Ties Production. Featuring Matila Malliarakis (Jaimie), Ivan Cori (Ste), Tadrina Hocking / Delphine Lacouque (Sandra), Simon Hubert (Tony) and Aude-Laurence Clermont (Leah). Translation : Pascal Crantelle.
May 2009 (Gent/Dutch language premiere) Directed by Fabio Van Hoorebeke. Featuring Pieter Van Nieuwenhuyze (Jonas), Bert Verbeke (Steve), Chadia Cambie (Sandra), Steve De Schepper (Tony) and Jolijn Antonissen (Leah).
10 February to 20 February 2010 (Alberta premiere): Walterdale Playhouse, Edmonton. Directed by Justen Bennett. Featuring Doran Werner (Jamie), Maura Frunza (Leah), Amelia Duplessis (Sandra), Joel Taras (Ste), and Randy Brososky (Tony).
April 22–24, 2010: Oberlin College in Oberlin, OH, directed by Matthew Wright, starring Linus Ignatius (Jamie), David Ohana (Ste), Hannah Finn (Sandra), Hallie Haas (Leah), and Andrew Gombas (Tony).
19 May to 2 June 2010: Directed by Andrew Cuthbertson at Bath Spa University Theatre, Bath, The Egg Theatre, Bath, the Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre in Taunton, the Tower in Winchester and The Drill Hall in London. Featuring Adam James Green as Jamie, Pete Peasey as Ste, Grace K. Miller as Sandra, Daniel Harland as Tony, and Aimee Farey as Leah.
16–24 July 2010: Tasmanian Premiere directed by Glenn Braithwaite, presented by the Old Nick Theatre Company at the Peacock Theatre in Hobart, Tasmania.
9 November to 3 December 2011: Directed by Sarah Frankcom at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Featuring Matthew Tennyson as Jamie, Tommy Vine as Ste, Tara Hodge as Leah, Claire-Louise Cordwell as Sandra and Alex Price as Tony.
9 February to 25 February 2012: Directed by Stephen M. Raeburn at the Browncoat Pub and Theatre, Wilmington. Featuring Kenny Rosander as Jamie, Ryan P. C. Trimble as Ste, Anna Gamel as Leah, Terrie Batson as Sandra, and Charles Auten as Tony. Regional premiere.
28 January to 29 January 2013: Directed by Peter Hynds and produced by TS Theatre Productions in Swindon, UK; performed at The Arts Centre, Swindon. This production starred Dominic Baker (Jamie), Josh Foyster (Ste), Sarah Lewis (Sandra), Ella Thomas (Leah), and Howard Trigg (Tony).
14 February to 2 March 2013: Directed by Brandon Martignago and produced by Burley Theatre in Sydney as an official Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival event. This 20th anniversary production starred Michael Brindley (Jamie), Stephanie King (Leah), Amanda Stephans Lee (Sandra), Luke Willing (Ste) and Andrew Hearle (Tony).
April - May Arts Theater in London's West End
30 April to 30 May 2013: Directed by JP Quirk and produced by Jeannine Collins in Batavia, IL. USA. This 20th anniversary production starred Timothy Vogel (Jamie), [Kasia Karbarz (Leah), Erin Cauley (Sandra), Michael Sherry (Ste), Tony Pelligrino (Tony) and Jon Witt (Ronnie). Photos - Facebook
24 July to 26 July 2015: Directed by Lawkin Law, translated by 我要真翻譯 and produced by Theatrideo in Hong Kong, at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. This production starred Koch Fung Koon Ho 馮小西 (Jamie), Joe Chan 陳祖 (Ste), Angle Kwok Lai Man 郭麗敏 (Sandra), Clara Ho Wing Yee 何潁怡 (Leah), and Romeo Wong Chun Kit 王俊傑 (Tony). Photos - Facebook
21 February 2017: Directed by Ryan Gooderham at Thurston Community College, Beyton. Starring Matthew Gibson (Jamie), Charlie Stannard (Ste), Aisling Brooks (Sandra), Imogen Turnbow (Leah) and Daniel McKeown (Tony).
11 October to 27 October 2018: In-house production by Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol. Directed by Mike Tweddle and starring Finn Hanlon as Tony, Amy-Leigh Hickman as Leah, Ted Reilly as Jamie, Phoebe Thomas as Sandra and Tristan Waterson as Ste.
^Derek Elley (10 March 1996). "Beautiful Thing". Variety. p. 77. Pic, which also unspools at this year's AFM, had buyers scrambling for their cell phones in the Berlin market and is rumored to be a contender for a spot in the sun at Cannes. Its world preem is set for March 28 in the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.
^Benedict Nightingale (3 August 1993). "If only things were so simple". The Times. Into the Bush we go and what strikes our eager eyes? Concrete paving, grey stucco walls, drab doors with 368, 369 and 370 embossed on them, and, as a feeble protest against the gloom, a few flowerpots and plaster dwarfs. This is the third floor of a council estate in Thamesmead, and as unlikely a setting for a play called Beautiful Thing as Buckingham Palace's gardens would be for Les Miserables.
^"The council cries foul play". Evening Standard. 24 November 1994. p. 43. Jonathan Harvey's West End hit Beautiful Thing is 'sickening' – that's official – as far as Bexley Borough Council is concerned. Harvey's play, about gay love is, of course, set in Thamesmead, part of which falls under the council's aegis. You might think fame for the borough would fill the breast of Bexley Tory councillor Graham R Holland, but no. The Duke of York's Theatre last week received a very severe letter from him on the council's headed paper. It criticises the billing of Harvey's gay love story as a comedy, and says the Holland family were 'intimidated' by gays in the bar and that they found 'the sight of older men with young lads was sickening, if legal'. He goes on to complain about the play's 'sordid' language: 'It was gratuitous, foul and offensive and was neither relevant nor, with my experience of Thamesmead ... in any way typical of the young people with whom I am in contact.' The shocked family group left after 20 minutes.