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A TASTE OF HONEY Lowry, Salford and touring



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.

Rating: Four   4 Meece Rating


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“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

rating:   four  4 Meece Rating

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