A Taste of Honey

Shelagh Delaney

National Theatre

Lowry Lyric

16-21 September 2019: 2hr 25min

Gemma Dobson (Jo), Tom Varey (Peter) and Jodie Prenger (Helen) in A Taste of Honey. All pics: Marc Brenner

Funny that a show that opened a week earlier should get its Press showing with only one more day left in its initial run. But that’s what the National Theatre decided for A Taste of Honey.

Officially the Salford leg of the opening UK tour lasted just two days – everything before that must have been previews (though the NT website says otherwise).

If that points to a little nervousness about getting it right before unveiling the play fully in the city in which it’s set, they needn’t have worried about reality checking. Hildegard Bechtler’s set evokes a horrible, damp, grimy, rubbish-strewn Salford lodging house of 60 years ago as well as an adaptable set reasonably could. Jodie Prenger and Gemma Dobson sound to me as authentically Salfordian as you could reasonably hope for.

They and the other cast members put in solid, effective performances in Shelagh Delaney’s portrayal of a 1950s world she knew first-hand – but one hopefully long-distant from that of the teenagers who today study it as a hallowed text.

Helen (Jodie Prenger) is half drunk half the time, vainly clinging to a hope of a fulfilling relationship with a man and trying one loser after another – following a marriage in which she was unfaithful and divorced by her husband. Her daughter Jo (Gemma Dobson) has the same sad hope that ‘love' (for which read sex) will make life worth living, and finds herself about to be bringing up a baby on her own, just like her mum. The play's bleak message is that this is going to repeat itself generation by generation ahead, and the two of them battle verbally through some brilliantly-written scenes that would be comical if they weren’t so desperately sad.

The men in the story are none too sympathetic: there's Peter, Helen’s greaseball sugar-daddy (played revoltingly enough by Tom Varey), and Jimmie, Jo’s black sailor boyfriend, who would these days be seen as a child molester but in the play seems to be pretty much Mr Nice Guy. Durone Stokes gives him a rather cultivated Home Counties voice, which struck me as odd.

The one exception is Geoffrey, the gay lad who becomes Jo’s one real, caring friend. If there’s a note of redemption in the play, this is it, and though at first I thought Stuart Thompson was trying too hard to be camp (there is a difference between camp and gay, and there surely was even in the 1950s), he makes the character come alive as the second act goes on.

You would have to be in your late 70s or early 80s now to remember the real Salford of 1958 as an older teenager or young adult, so it’s vanishing from lived experience. Back then men divorced women, but women rarely men, because of their poor pay and limited property rights, and most people thought formal marriage should be closely associated with the beginning of a serious sexual relationship and starting a family – whereas today many marriages are celebrated well into the progress of living together as a unit. There was also a limbo time between leaving school and becoming an adult (at 21), which hardly exists today.

So A Taste of Honey is a sociological document as well as a drama. It’s perhaps an indication of just how little some things have changed that it can be celebrated as a feminist milestone, just because it was a rare example of a woman succeeding in a creative world dominated by men. When we see Shelagh Delaney as a playwright, rather than a woman playwright, perhaps we will see her true stature. Because the play, as an observation of real life and a dramatic construction to embody it, is a work of genius.

Bijan Sheibani directs this production with a kind of haze of sentiment, bringing us into it via songs presented by the entire cast and a jazz trio, without a formal curtain-up. Having one song – Mad about the Boy – sung by Stuart Thompson is a bit too politically correct in its attempt to establish a gay figure with a lack of secretiveness that is alien to the period and the play. But the play itself is indestructible.

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