SIXTY YEARS OR ONE MILE AWAY – Greater-Manchester guest critic HELEN GASKELL REVELS IN GRIT AND SKILL
Ah, to watch a classic play in the place it was written. Working class Salford girl Shelagh Delaney famously wrote A Taste of Honey at 19, after being disappointed on a trip to see Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme. She reckoned she could do better: of course she was right, and a classic was born.
Recap, for those not familiar with this northern classic. It is the late 1950s, and 15 year old Jo (Gemma Dobson) lives in squalor with her vampy, sex-kitten mother Helen (Jodie Prenger). After Helen swans off to marry a drunken, violent younger man (Tom Varey) Jo is left to fend for herself. She falls in love with a black sailor named Jimmie, played with perfection in this instance by Durone Stokes. After he too leaves her in the lurch, she finally catches a break and falls in with her gay friend Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson) – until everything starts falling apart.
Context is key. It is too easy to forget that when it was written, mixed race relationships were extremely taboo and homosexual relationships illegal. Much of the play hinges on this, and younger audience members might be forgiven for finding some plot points slightly confusing. For example, Geoffrey might still face persecution for being gay today, but unlikely to find himself homeless when still able to pay his rent.
The production does not attempt to draw clumsy parallels or score political points. It is unashamedly a period piece. But its themes are not irrelevant to our current situation: in fact, the poverty -well depicted in the set – of the 50s flat Jo and Helen live in would certainly be recognisable to many not a mile away from the Lowry today. Jo can, at least, turn on her gas stove, and Geoffrey can afford to buy a packet of then-exotic pasta without resorting to a visit to a food bank. We are deep in I, Daniel Blake territory.
The National Theatre does not disappoint: the production is absolutely superb, with some of the cleverest staging imaginable. i=It benefits from the genius incorporation of a live band scattered across the stage, and light smoke giving a wonderfully dingy feel to the already-dirty set. Hildegard Bechtler, set and costume designer, has done an impeccable job of capturing poverty and squalor; Paul Anderson’s lighting design is highly commended: he is not afraid to let in the dark. Finally, the team have worked well together: barely noticeable visual tweaks and stolen moments between scenes say as much as the actors themselves. A dirty tablecloth is replaced with a clean one; a silent dance is glimpsed between absent Jimmie and besotted Jo; a bare lightbulb gets a shade. This baked-in aura of northern grit takes weight off the actors, and Delaney’s natural wit shines through. Too often British plays of this era are marred by hammy, OTT acting, but not here. Nearly every performance is outstanding. It is frankly marvellous to see a gay man portrayed without camp, a lothario as a romantic, and domestic violence no less terrifying due to its subtlety.
And the singing – gosh, the singing. Not a croak or a bum note in evidence – nothing at all to distract from the wonderful use of contemporaneous music, which is seamlessly blended into the production. Itwould be perfection, if it were not for the fact that it is hard to suspend disbelief far enough to see a 28 year old woman play a 16 year old. Dobson is a superb actress, but there are others who could successfully assist an audience in clambering over that mental hurdle. Do not let that put you off.
box office http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/a-taste-of-honey-uk-tour . On tour until 16th November.