A Taste of Honey – Richmond Theatre, London

Writer: Shelagh Delaney

Director: Bijan Sheibani

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Shelagh Delaney wrote her first play, A Taste of Honey, when she was just nineteen, and it shows. Not because it is naïve or imperfect, in the way so many other playwrights’ work is at the first stages of their career. No, Delaney’s work stands out because it is fearless, unencumbered by any thought that she shouldn’t be telling her story.

The National Theatre’s 2014 production, now touring the UK before a West End run, casts Jodie Prenger as Helen, the sort of brassy, working-class Northern lass that is rooted in reality, but in the decades since this work has veered into caricature.

Prenger’s natural ability for comedy comes to the fore in the first act, as we meet Helen and her daughter Jo (a sparkling Gemma Dobson) as they move into a rundown flat. As the sensible Jo worries about sleeping accommodation, food and heating, Helen whirls about, ostensibly more concerned with drinking whisky and having a good time.

But the strings of maternal concern, however faint, are present in Bijan Sheibani’s direction, even as Prenger departs with Tom Varey’s cartoonishly sinister boyfriend. Left to her own devices, Dobson begins to blossom, especially in the presence of boyfriend Jimmie (Durone Stokes). But come Act II, Jimmie is gone and Jo is pregnant, destined to follow in Helen’s footsteps by becoming a single parent.

Delaney deals with inter-racial relationships and homosexuality, in the shape of Jo’s best friend Geoffrey (an assured professional debut from Stuart Thompson) with a lightness of touch that plays written some 60 years later still struggle with. That helps A Taste of Honey still feel fresh and vibrant, the flits between humour and pathos feeling thrillingly contemporary

An onstage band, dotted around Hildegard Bechtler’s fragmentary set, provide a persistent underscoring to the beats of Delaney’s poetry, while allowing the actors to sing a variety of standards during scene breaks. The overall effect is of a fresh look at working-class life of the late 1950s that never patronises its characters – a lesson for all theatre practitioners from which to learn.

Continues until 12 October 2019 | Image: Contributed

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