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A Taste of Honey

Updated: Mar 22

Shelagh Delaney

Royal Exchange Theatre Company

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

March 15-April 13, 2024: 2 hrs 45 mins

Rowan Robinson and Jill Halfpenny as Jo and Helen in A Taste of Honey at the Royal Exchange Theatre. cr: Johan Persson
Bleak fierceness: Rowan Robinson and Jill Halfpenny as Jo and Helen in A Taste of Honey at the Royal Exchange Theatre. All pics: Johan Persson

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What is there new to say about A Taste of Honey? It’s been a GCSE set text for years and there are reams of pass notes and analyses about it – ground-breaking kitchen-sink drama, social document, glimpse of a bygone age, harbinger of women’s liberation; a strange and now scarcely-believable memory of a time before free contraception, the legalisation of homosexuality and anti-racism laws.

The Exchange has done it before, more than once, and they’ve even rigged up a little exhibition about their previous productions. This new one by Emma Baggott thankfully doesn’t try to make statements or be startlingly novel. It focuses relentlessly on the two women and gay man at its centre, and makes you ask the sort of questions about them that have always been latent in the play. In the process, it takes a rather sentimental view of 1950s Salford… but then, arguably, that’s in the play too.

There’s music, but it’s one singer (Nishla Smith) gently punctuating the story with (mainly) bits and repetitions of Ewan McColl’s 1949 song, Dirty Old Town: that was about Salford, really, but sentimental, too. The set is sparse, but then so were the rooms described in the script: the big design (Peter Butler) idea is a sort of unfolding fairground carousel gantry that relates to the detail of how young Jo met her brief love, Jimmie. There is a kitchen, and there is a sink, but that’s only half visible from some parts of the seating.

At the heart of it there’s a relationship between a mother and a daughter, which climaxes in a searing battle of verbal artillery in the final scene. Jill Halfpenny (Helen, the mother) and Rowan Robinson (pregnant Jo) give this all they’ve got. In the first Act they verge on becoming stock soap-opera characters, but the bleak fierceness of the final confrontation has something much harder in it. It’s Rowan Robinson’s professional stage debut, and an impressive one – she’s a Salford girl, so there’s an element of homecoming in it, but it’s an achievement that she projects herself back in time by well over half a century.

The other multi-faceted performance is David Moorst’s as Geoffrey, the gay art student who becomes Jo’s only real and caring friend. There’s a lot in his portrayal, as in many ways the only good human being in the whole tale. Andrew Sheridan makes a good fist of the smart and seedy, finally drunk, man in Helen’s life, but the play doesn’t give him much scope for rousing sympathy. There’s a slight surprise in the presentation of Jimmie the young black sailor (played by Obadiah) who leaves Jo after their brief fling: he's a cultivated, well dressed southerner and you wonder how he fetched up in Salford, but maybe that’s the point about tasting honey.

Is the play truthful? You would have to ask someone who remembers 1950s Salford, and I don’t. Maybe it was never really meant to be: it’s interesting that an essay in the programme by Melanie Williams points out that there are myths about Shelagh Delaney being a complete theatrical ingenue springing untutored from the back-to-back terraces which simply aren’t true.

More info and tickets here


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