Writer: Shelagh Delaney
Director: Bijan Sheibani
Reviewer: Tom Ralphs
Written in 1958, A Taste of Honey was a ground-breaking play both in terms of its writer – a young working-class female in a world dominated by middle class men – and its subject matter. Moving away from the angry young man drama of the likes of John Osborne, it depicted people and lifestyles seldom seen on stage but did it in a non-judgmental way. It was observational rather than condemnatory or accusing. Sixty years later, the National Theatre revival is less of a shock to the system and more a reminder of where the journey to present day theatre began.
Helen and Josephine are a mother and daughter living in Salford. At the start of the play they have just moved into a new flat, continuing a regular practice of moving homes for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Josephine is nearing the age when she can leave an education that she’s barely had and can also move out from living under Helen’s less than protective wing.
Jodie Prenger as Helen and Gemma Dobson as Josephine bring the mother daughter relationship to life superbly, with the bickering and in-fighting between the two underpinned by the sense of mutual dependency. They may not like each other, but they are linked by blood and have no alternative other than to be together.
The complications come in the form of men and money as Helen is drawn to the disreputable Peter, a man who appears to be well off at least in comparison to her, and Josephine falls in love with Jimmie, a black sailor on leave from the Navy, as much as a way of escaping from her mother as because she really loves him or understands what love is.
The first act of the play has a real wit and verve to it, born on the streets that would give rise to Coronation Street a few years later, you can hear the resilience and self-deprecation that would spill into Britain’s longest running soap at its finest. There’s no self-pity and there’s no railing against the injustices of life, there is just acceptance and determination to get on with it and do whatever you can to survive.
The second act moves things on as Jimmie fails to come back from the navy leaving Josephine pregnant and sharing the flat with Geoffrey, a gay man in a time and place where this was almost unheard of. Helen has married Peter, but it’s no surprise to find that their relationship has gone the way of most of her others.
In spite of a promising opening, this act tends to flatline part way through as the same statements of defiance and objection repeat themselves without driving the story forward. While Geoffrey and Josephine develop a good relationship, sitting somewhere between best friends and protectors with occasional nods towards a more romantic love, there is not the same spark between them as there was between Josephine and Helen in the first act. The male characters as a whole are weaker and less interesting than the two female leads and the play suffers as the focus shifts away from them.
The play as a whole also suffers to some degree from the fact that it was ground-breaking and had such a large influence in changing views of what theatre could be. It has inspired other writers who have pushed the form further. What was unusual in the late 1950s is now more commonplace and, as a result, while this is an excellent production it feels more like a reminder of an important piece of theatrical history than a play that remains relevant in the present day.
Runs until 28 September 2019 then touring | Image: Marc Brenner