DramaFeaturedNorth WestReview

A Taste of Honey- The Royal Exchange, Manchester

Reviewer: David Cunningham

Writer: Shelagh Delaney

Director: Emma Baggott

The Royal Exchange’s revival of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey is very much a local production. The venue is close to the area where the play is set and the production features Salfordian Rowan Robinson making her professional stage debut in one of the lead roles. My route to the venue passes Pendleton School of Theatre where Robinson trained.

In late 1950’s Salford teenager Jo (Rowan Robinson) and her mother Helen (Jill Halfpenny) lead an itinerant lifestyle moving from one dead-end lodging to another as rent becomes due or Helen needs to dodge one of her many boyfriends. Both have a realistically bleak outlook on life knowing they cannot depend on anyone else or even each other.

Although Jo is only just approaching the age when she will leave school Helen does not hesitate to abandon her when the opportunity arises to link up with Peter (Andrew Sheridan) who spends money like a man with no arms. Although Jo gives no indication of missing her mother, she shows every sign of making the same mistakes – becoming pregnant after a brief liaison with sailor Jimmie (Obadiah). She forms a platonic relationship with art student Geoffrey (David Moorst) who needs accommodation after being evicted when his landlady caught him with another man. But the return of Helen puts their unusual but stable homelife at risk.

Director Emma Baggott confounds expectations with a production that does not conform to grim ‘kitchen sink’ stereotypes. There is hint of fantasy as if past events are being recalled rather than experienced for the first time. In the script Helen comes across as mutton dressed as lamb, someone clinging to fading attraction. Jill Halfpenny, however, wears Peter Butler’s bright costumes in an assertive manner as if challenging anyone to criticise her choice of style.

Like a narrator, jazz singer Nishla Smith wanders the boundary of the performance space commenting upon developments via snatches of songs by Ewan MacColl or from Shakespeare’s sonnets. Smith sets the slightly largely than life tone by conjuring the opening of the play from a few abandoned props that rise and form Butler’s stage set.

The elements of the play which were considered shocking when it was first staged- an interracial relationship and a gay character- are now commonplace. Director Baggott avoids any sensationalism, even the elements which are now most likely to stir strong opinions – shockingly poor parenting and Jo becoming pregnant when barely above the age of consent – are downplayed.

In act one Baggott sets a gossipy light tone with Robinson and Halfpenny constantly breaking the fourth wall to share snarky asides about each other with the audience. As a result, in the second act, when the mood darkens and characters turn really nasty, the emotional impact is all the greater.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the production is the suggestion that, even in truly desperate circumstances, the characters are able to find a degree of joy. In that respect Delaney’s play can be said to have influenced the heedless hedonism of Trainspotting. There are two examples of alternatives to traditional marriage in the play. Jo and Helen behave like a long-married couple each treating the other as an equal. Helen does not condescend to Jo and cheerfully chats with her daughter about topics most parents would regard as inappropriate while Jo does not use the term ‘mother’ and addresses Helen by name. Jo and Geoffrey are like newlyweds each adjusting to living with a new person.

Although the play is dominated by Robinson and Halfpenny the supporting cast make a strong contribution. Andrew Sheridan shows a disturbing descent from a loud jack the lad with wandering hands into an unpleasant drunk while David Moorst has a wonderfully deadpan style of delivery.

Jill Halfpenny finds complexity in a character who could be a monster. She shows Helen’s vulnerability, defensively dismissing a sexless marriage and an unwise affair as if they were not traumatic experiences; yet, in the second act, chillingly displays just how manipulative and prejudiced Helen can become when forced into a corner.

There is a star-making performance from Rowan Robinson who draws out Jo’s indominable spirit but does not hesitate to reflect her insecurity. Although Robinson shows Jo taunting Peter with her sexuality, she makes the greatest impression in the quieter scenes. The closing sequence of Jo silently coping with discovering evidence she is running out of options is stunning.

The Royal Exchange’s production of A Taste of Honey shows it is not necessarily grim up north.

Runs until 13 April 2024

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