A BLAST OF FRESH AIR FROM THE FIFTIES
“Cinema is as bad as the theatre these days” says Jo’s mother Helen disdainfully. “All mauling and muttering”. Written in 1958 by the teenage Shelagh Delaney, it’s one of many great lines in this gritty, exuberant shout of a play. The story is told of how the 18-year-old author saw Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme (piquantly, it’s on next week at the Finborough, first outing in 50 years). Exasperated by its limp-wristed Riviera setting, Delaney wrote this, set in the backstreets of Salford and concerning a teenager deserted by her slattern of a mother in a slum room, pregnant by a black sailor and cared for by a gay art student. Joan Littlewood – equally piquantly, her centenary is this year – relished its vigour and put it on. The homosexual implication meant that it only narrowly avoided a ban from the Lord Chamberlain (censorship was to limp on for ten years more).
The famous film is better known than the play now, and Bijan Sheibani’s lively new production demonstrates what a pity that is. Films telescope dialogue, simplify and glamourize: what we get here is leaping, vivid, complicated, full-blooded life. It centres on the dancing optimism of youth which rejects pathos and the clichés of romance, and the brilliant ambiguity of a neglectful mother who cannot be entirely monstrous. It is funny, affectionate and shocking , and for a play which dived headfirst into dangerous waters – teenage pregnancy, inter-racial sex, homosexuality – it is utterly free from that poker-faced tone of modern issue-plays. Indeed it makes the Angry Young Men of Delaney’s own time seem dogmatic, whiney and misogynist. With the clear eyes of youth she takes people as she finds them, warts and all. The detail is a delight: in the brief courtship of Jo and sailor Jimmie (Eric Kofi Abrefa) the toy car in his pocket is a grace-note few playwrights would add. Her characters are too real to represent anything but themselves. So kitchen-sink all right, but an ancestor of Coronation Street rather than the dour EastEnders. As the tarty old fox Helen (Lesley Sharp) observes “We’re all at the steering wheel of our own destiny, careering like drunk drivers”.
When pain fizzes through it is deeply real, but the quality of larky realism is brilliantly enhanced by brief jazzy brass entr’actes when the cast spin and dance in the bricky, sooty street for a few moments: Jo with her lover Jimmie, or later coming back from a fair pregnant but unbowed with a handful of balloons and her gay pal Geoffrey; later Geoffrey himself dances with his mop, tidying the squalid room. Kate O’Flynn is a superb Josephine, stroppy and combative with an edge of desperate need for the love Helen can’t be bothered to offer her: her sudden cry “I don’t want to be a mother, I don’t want to be a woman” comes like an electric shock. Lesley Sharp (“Look at my face, every line tells a dirty story) is alternately hilarious, horrible and needy: stunning in her unwonted desperate quietness when her drunken new husband kicks off. Harry Hepple gives a perfect, restrained dignity to Geoffrey. And the end is as ambiguously open to wishful thinking as life itself.
Box office 020 7452 3000 to 11 May