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Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey returns to the stage.
Bijan Sheibani’s production of Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 groundbreaking classic A Taste of Honey has just opened at the Trafalgar Studios. The play hasn’t been seen in the West End for 60 years but like me, you might know the terrific BAFTA-winning film starring Rita Tushingham. Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey in just 10 days when she was just 19 years old after seeing a Terence Rattigan play and deciding that she could do better. Set in Salford in the 1950s the play gives voice to the experiences of working-class women in a way that had not only never been done before, but also with more humanity, linguistic fireworks and humour than many of her ‘angry young men’ peers. Sheibani has updated his 2014 Lyttelton Theatre production for the National Theatre with a restaging and the integration of live music and songs into the drama. The cast along with a jazz trio is on stage striking louche poses and smoking fags as the audience enters with Jodie Prenger as dysfunctional mother and ex pub singer Helen, slipping into a 60s retro Amy Winehouse-style song. With a strong ensemble cast, it is still very much Prenger’s show. She brings snap, crackle and pop to the stage like a cross between Diana Dors and Bet Lynch, dragging her sullen teenage daughter Jo (played with a feisty air of defeat by Gemma Dobson) around with her. Just having moved into a shabby flat near the local abattoir Helen’s ex-lover Peter turns up unexpectedly. Tom Varey wearing a piratical eye patch and smoking a cigar captures the seedy wide boy essence of the character and there is a genuine sense of sexual tension between Prenger as the 40-year-old Helen and Varey as the younger toy-boy car salesman. Peter has come to surprise Helen with a marriage proposal and the two of them run off to Blackpool for a honeymoon leaving Jo to her own devices. This entails moving in her black sailor boyfriend Jimmy, in a winning performance by Durone Stokes, who after serenading her à la Sam Cooke gets Jo, who is white, pregnant and then disappears off to sea never to return. The second act sees a very pregnant Jo living with her gay art student friend, Stuart Thompson as Geoffrey, who has become her de facto carer, who is conflicted both about his sexuality and his feelings for Jo. The scenes between the two of them are beautifully acted framing the vulnerability of both characters as they both try to make sense of their outsider status and the complexities of their relationship. When Jo is on the cusp of giving birth, Geoffrey contacts Helen who by that time has been sidelined by Peter and finally sees a role for herself as a mother to her daughter. Helen pushes Geoffrey away from Jo which from a contemporary perspective seems harsh but would have made much more sense to a 1950s audience. In a sense, the plot foreshadows the narratives of contemporary soap operas but in a way that was 25 years ahead of its time. But for me, the really exciting thing is Shelagh Delaney’s use of language which is both extremely literate, and in the vernacular allowing the actors to bounce off each other’s lines in a way that is almost Shakespearean. Designed by Hildegard Bechtler, who collaborated with Sheibani on the NT’s 2014 Lyttelton Theatre production, the open set captures the mood of 1950s working-class accommodation with exploding gas cookers and coin meters, and the costumes are suitably in period. I did have some questions about the use of music in the show. There are original compositions by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell with arrangements channelling the mid-1960s, and rearrangements or allusions to Great American Songbook classics such as ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’, ‘Mad About the Boy’, the rhumba ‘Nature Boy’ and ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’. The band also provided a sophisticated musical underscore – whispers of drum and cymbal rolls and oblique piano motifs – but my early expectations of a full-blown musical score were not fulfilled. However, Prenger sings her heart out when she gets a chance and the press night audience loved the singing which brought another dimension to this version of the show. A Taste of Honey is a play of radical intent that explodes onto the stage of the Trafalgar Studios. It’s well worth a visit.
A Taste of Honey
London SW1A 2DY
Thursday 5 December 2019 – Saturday 29 February 2020