Writer: Shelagh Delaney
Director: Bijan Sheibani
Reviewer: Rebecca Cohen
The Lowry should be the perfect setting for National Theatre’s portrayal of the 1958 play A Taste of Honey. There is a reason it has been selected as the first pit stop for its latest tour – after all it is a compelling portrayal of working-class life in post-war Salford. However, a combination of some jarring direction, some questionable casting in one of the lead roles, and too big a venue, make it less poignant and more disheartening.
Written by Shelagh Delaney when she was just 19-years-old, A Taste of Honey was very much considered a taboo-breaking kitchen sink play of its time – addressing social issues such as teenage pregnancy, class and homosexuality that she felt needed more prominence on a public platform. In today’s society, it is far from groundbreaking and could be in parts be considered predictable, but for its place in history you can see exactly why it went on to win great acclaim, scooping the Charles Henry Foyle award for Best New Play in 1959 and winning four Bafta awards after being turned into a film in 1961. The plot focuses on two women, a mother and daughter, living in dire straits in a shabby Salford flat. The relationship is already fractured, but becomes tested further when mum Helen falls for a car salesman and daughter Josephine sets her sights on marriage with a black sailor.
Jodie Prenger, who shot to fame on the Andrew Lloyd Webber search for Nancy in BBC One’s I’d Do Anything, is perhaps the biggest name in the play’s line up and the strongest as well, as she portrays the alcoholic single mother Helen. Her excellent timing means that she is able to make the most of the comedic elements of the script, and the singing voice that won the heart of the nation back in 2008 is able to come into play during some musical interludes. Unfortunately, while obviously a good actress, Gemma Dobson as Helen’s fiery daughter Josephine is not quite as good a fit. Whether it be personal characterisation or the direction of Bijan Sheibani, a lot of the lines are delivered in a very samey fashion, often coming across as shouty rather than sincere, and meaning that some of the more heartwarming moments of the play are lost – especially the swing scene in Act One, which oozes potential but lacks believability or chemistry between the two characters on the stage. The main men, Durone Stokes as Jimmie, Stuart Thompson as Geoffrey and Tom Varey as Peter do well as plot device characters, as do the rest of the costumed cast, who are there to ensure set changes happen publicly and slickly.
The setting and staging of the show have the right idea, and will likely be a hit at some of the smaller venues across the country. The concepts, set, and costumes are there and successfully encapsulate the era of the play, but on The Lowry’s biggest of its three theatres – the Lyric Theatre – the play loses its intimacy, making it hard for the audience to really feel the conditions the protagonists are experiencing. The addition of two musicians on the stage is a touch that works well, the dialogue often being complimented and given a dimension by gentle use of a double bass, drum and cymbal.
While offering a great insight into some of the harrowing topics of 1950s Britain, this interpretation isn’t the most gritty or gripping. Its potential is there, but sadly its polish is not.
Runs until 21 September 2019 | Image: Contributed