Sometimes a writer is so connected with a single piece of work that it becomes almost immaterial whether pen has ever been put to paper on any other occasion. This is the case with Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird, J.D. Salinger and The Catcher In The Rye and Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights; to be fair the latter did pass on before anything more could be written. It is a similar case in drama with Shelagh Delaney. Although she carried on writing way beyond her teenage years, it is really only her debut play A Taste Of Honey which is well remembered.
The National Theatre’s version from 2014 has recently appeared on their At Home platform and makes a strong case for its revival as a play with something still to say. Quite apart from providing a female writing voice for what might be loosely described as “kitchen sink” drama, without it Coronation Street might never have come to pass in the early 1960s. It also clearly sets the template for Jim Cartwright’s The Rise And Fall of Little Voice and even TV comedy Absolutely Fabulous owes it some short of debt. Both of these feature single mothers with an eye to a good time which is frowned upon by a disapproving daughter. The template is well set in Delaney’s play with flighty Helen and the more responsible Jo forever moving from lodging to lodging in post war Salford, struggling to make ends meet and finding themselves at the mercy of a condemnatory society. The pair have radically different outlooks on life, but Bijan Sheibani’s direction also emphasises their clear similarities in the way they have moments of exhilaration which quickly turn to despair. Both become pregnant at an early age and drip with neediness and a barely supressed vitality; both long for an audience and play up to them when they are there. Their mutual anger with each other seems to feed their relationship. When asked why they shout at each other so much Helen swiftly responds, “Because we like it!”. It becomes very easy to see that they are truly mother and daughter.
A peroxided Lesley Sharp commands the stage as Helen, sashaying round between scenes trying to be elegant but undercutting herself at every turn. It’s a performance suffused with physical and verbal energy which if occasionally veering into caricature mostly manages to avoid the obvious pitfalls. Kate O’Flynn is equally good as Jo as she steers her character from truculent teenager to a more resigned young mother. It’s all too easy to forget that nowadays her single mother status and mixed race baby might hardly stir comment, but back in the day Jo would all but have been an outcast. O’Flynn ensures there is an undercurrent of concern about this status which manifests itself in her performance. There’s a winningly non- stereotypical characterisation of Jo’s gay protector Geoffrey from Harry Sepple though in truth the long duologue between the two at the start of the second half does start to drag. Eric Kofi Abrefa as sailor lover Jimmie and Dean Lennox Kelly as Helen’s current meal ticket Peter complete the cast; their share of the dialogue allows for little room to go beyond just the one dimension.
Hildegard Bechtler’s imposing set (perhaps it is rather too spacious) certainly has the look of being sandwiched between the gasworks, the abattoir and the cemetery; you can almost see the condensation running down the mouldering walls. Ian Dickinson’s soundscape of distant voices and traffic also gives an appropriate sense of the grim reality of life in an industrial town. The linking music of Paul Englishby is heavily jazz inflected and pays homage to Joan Littlewood’s seminal production at Stratford East in 1958 when a live band was on stage. These links also provide moments for various characters to express their inner selves through dance (movement director Aline David) though this does add to an already not inconsiderable running time.
For a play nearing it’s 65th birthday it is surprising how contemporary many of the themes of A Taste Of Honey remain, taking it beyond its original time and setting. Identity and relationships lie at its heart; two elements of life that will never diminish or cease to be explored. Small wonder that the piece has topped a poll for most performed play by a female writer on the British stage and that so much of what came after owed it a huge debt.