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The appearance and success ofShelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey became a theatrical legend almost from thebeginning. A 19-year old woman from a working-class background, with littleeducation and almost no knowledge of theatre wrote a play about people on thebottom rung of the social ladder. She sent the script to the legendary JoanLittlewood and the play was presented by the Theatre Workshop in Stratford. NotStratford-upon-Avon but the suburb of London.

It was a smashing success and wasmade into a film. Delaney continued writing but she never duplicated thesuccess of A Taste of Honey. She died in 2011.

The play has been revived by theNational Theatre in a superbly acted production that also contains someinteresting choices by director Bijan Sheibani.

The plot involves the lives ofHelen (Jodi Prenger), a buxom, crude woman described by Delaney as a“semi-whore,” her daughter Jo (Gemma Dobson) and several men who enter theirlives. They live in a dump in Manchester, near a slaughterhouse and a smelly river.The two women show contempt for each other but there are suggestions ofaffection. There are indications of artistic talent that was quashed by povertyand life choices.

There are three men in theirlives. Peter (Tom Varey), a car salesman, is one of Helen’s customers. Jimmie(Durone Stokes) is a black sailor who promises marriage and leaves Jo pregnant.Geoffrey is a decent young man who happens to be homosexual.

It is a richly textured play withnumerous undertones in its description of the horrors and degradation ofpoverty and the strength to survive it however by any means available.

The issue of the production isthe choices made by director Bijan Sheibani. The play begins with Helen and Jo arrivingat the cold and dreary apartment in a slum of Manchester. Sheibani does notfind that satisfactory and he has the play open in a pub. There is a bandplaying jazz music and Helen drinks and sings. When she finishes her song, alarge crew rushes on the stage with the furniture for the apartment and Delaney’sopening lines are heard. The stage crew is used several times to move props onand off the stage.

There are many references tomusic in the play but there is no mention of a band staying on the stagethroughout the performance. This is what Sheibani does. The musicians donothing most of the time, but they do play a few bars here and there. In onescene change, Geoff does a sizeable song and dance routine for which I can findno explanation. The musicians add nothing, but they do change the tenor of theplay which you may classify as slightly annoying or ridiculous.

The production is saved byoutstanding performances. Jodie Prenger delivers a Helen who is sluttish,selfish, crude and odious. Her maternal instinct, to the extent that it exists,appears infrequently and it is rebuffed by her daughter. A stellar performance.

Gemma Dobson’s Jo is a patheticteenager who hates her mother and is looking for something or someone that sheis not even sure of. We feel sorry her for her without liking her and are neverquite sure why or if we dislike her. Dobson’s finely balanced performance is apleasure to watch.

Tom Varey as Peter is a drunkcad, the type of slimeball that brags about his conquest of women, lies abouthis prowess and descends to proposing marriage to a woman like Helen. Sheprobably could be had for a few bob.

Durone Stokes as Jimmie thesailor is a “nice guy” who is looking for sex and finds the eternal formula forgetting it: offer love, promise marriage, have sex and disappear. StuartThomson is excellent as Geoff who befriends Jo and is basically the soul ofdecency in an indecent situation.

The actors speak in a thickManchester accent that is not always comprehensible to the untuned ear. Therewere times when I had to strain to understand what was being said and lookedfor surtitles.

The creation of A Taste ofHoney is a marvelous story of an almost instantaneous eruption oftalent in a most unlikely of places that results in marvelous theatregenerations later.


The Taste of Honeyby Shelagh Delaney continuesuntil February 29, 2020 at Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, TheNorman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

London, England.

January 10, 2020

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