Writer: Shelagh Delaney
Director: Chris Lawson
Reviewer: Richard Hall
Written when she was only 18, Shelagh Delaney’s, A Taste of Honey, has been credited as being one of the first kitchen sink dramas of the Twentieth Century. It is claimed that Delaney wrote it in response to seeing a play by Terrence Rattigan and wanted to rid the stage of two-dimensional comic northern characters beloved of him and other writers of the time.
Set in Salford, where she grew up, Delaney’s play presents a glimpse into the often chaotic and unruly world of Jo, a young teenager growing up in a bedsit with her alcoholic mother, Helen, who works her way through a series of unsuitable fancy men. Their relationship is fiery and volatile and when Helen marries her latest fancy man, Jo is abandoned, falls pregnant to a black sailor and is befriended by a gay art student, with whom she makes a temporary home.
This intense domestic drama proved to be extremely controversial when it opened at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop and is cited as being one of the influences that led to the creation of Coronation Street. Sammy Dowson’s excellent period set, complete with peeling wallpaper and distressed furniture recreates the northern industrial squalor that Delaney was so keen to depict and perfectly shows Jo, like a caged bird, fluttering around the interior of her bedsit with little hope of escape.
The lengthy opening scene of A Taste of Honey,which sees Helen and Jo arriving at yet another temporary home, is usually played as a high octane shouting match between the two protagonists for whom it is difficult to feel any sympathy. In this production, however, although there is clearly a lot of anger being shown by both characters the playing of the scene is calmer and the relationship between mother and daughter shown to be tenderer. This is the first time that I have seen the play approached this way and it is a revelation. It sets the mood for the remainder of the production where the usual hysteria gives way to subtle observations and importantly allows Delaney’s beautifully written prose, extremely poetic in places to rise to the fore. Director, Chris Lawson is to be congratulated for providing something more nuanced and multi-layered.
Lawson’s first-rate cast rise to the challenge of producing a softer more introspective interpretation and one instantly feels that this is a version that Delaney would have preferred over other more strident and noisy productions. Each character comes across as being extremely well defined, especially the mother-daughter combo of Gemma Dobson as Jo and Kerrie Taylor as Helen. Dobson follows up her excellent performance in Rita, Bob and Sue Too, by creating another wonderfully rounded character so in tune with Delaney’s own view of the world that it is almost possible to believe that the writer herself is playing Jo. Taylor matches Dobson in the acting stakes and her portrayal of Helen is the most believable and sympathetic that I have seen.
The other members of the cast, Phil Rowson as Peter, (Helen’s latest fancy man), Kenton Thomas as Jimmie the sailor who abandons Jo and Max Runham as Geoff, the art student who acts as a surrogate big sister, provide strong support avoiding some of the clichés normally associated with their roles. Lawson’s hugely enjoyable production allows the play’s natural raw authenticity and lyricism to flow in abundance. It is often the case that plays set in the past can speak more eloquently and passionately about the present and although to some extent we may look at Jo and Helen’s plight through rose tinted glasses, the truth is that their modern-day counterparts are as much in need of our help and understanding today as they were in the late 1950’s.
This production is only on for two weeks and I strongly urge anyone who enjoys popular theatre and has a strong sense of social and moral justice to rush to see it.
Runs until Saturday 9 June | Image: Joel Chester Fildes