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A Taste of Honey

by on 9 October 2019

Bitter Irony

A Taste of Honey

by Shelagh Delaney

The National Theatre at Richmond Theatre until 12th October, then on tour until 29th February

Review by Mark Aspen

The taste of honey can be a bitter taste, an ironic thought when reflecting on all of the ironies that stream through this classical kitchen sink drama. Ironic too that we, the audience, are dimly reflected in a disintegrating mirror that stands at the back of the set.
From the viewpoint of 21st Century we can reflect on what we would find taboo and what would we tolerate as an audience in 1958; how we might have felt about premarital sex, miscegenation, homosexuality or abortion. Today, most people would not bat an eyelid, but in those days toes would curl to breaking point.

How remarkable then that an unexperienced teenager, Shelagh Delaney not only penned a play that touched on all these taboos, but boldly presented it to a leading theatre producer. And how bold it was that that producer, Joan Littlewood put that play, A Taste of Honey straight onto a major London stage.

15. Jodie Prenger (Helen) and Tom Varey (Peter)_A Taste of Honey

The National Theatre’s version of A Taste of Honey gives more than a nod to the original production but has a more contemporary approach to the staging. Hildegard Bechtler’s design creates an atmosphere that is scruffy, smoky, seedy and subterranean. It is an empty warehouse; and it needs to be, for the wares are empty lives. It is open; and it needs to be as busy running changes are part of the action as each scene unfolds. What it is not, is claustrophobic; and it needs to be, as each of the lodging rooms that form most scenes are tightly closed spaces, each confining, pressuring and constraining taut human emotions. However, claustrophobia comes from Paul Anderson’s moody lighting, delineating closed spaces with angular vaporous beams in an expressionist sepia style.

The opening of the play eases into a scene in a rundown dive in Salford where a band plays lazy jazz. In a homage to the first 1958 Stratford East production, a jazz trio remains on stage throughout like a Greek chorus, musically commenting on the action. Music director, David O’Brien leads on keyboard with Alex Davis on double bass and George Bird on drums.    Moreover, all the actors are called upon to sing and they make a fine job of it. In clever arrangements by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, we only hear snatches of songs, for there never is any resolution or completion for what each is reaching out for. Hope is always frustrated. The truncated numbers interpose themselves in scene changes to summarise the coming plot element.

It is the mid-1950’ and in the first lodgings Helen, a forty-something alcoholic and single mother, has just moved in with her daughter Jo, seventeen, who has never had a continuous school education. There is no love lost between them, as their caustic conversation testifies. Their relationship is as dilapidated as the rooms they now occupy. Sandwiched between the gasworks and the slaughter house, it lacks heating, functioning fittings and wallpaper.

1. Jodie Prenger (Helen)_ A Taste of Honey

Hellen is a promiscuous good-time gal (Delaney described her as “a semi-whore”), living off of her latest lover, and whose only sustenance seems to come in a bottle. Jodie Prenger, as Helen, pulls out all the stops, brash, bold and brassy, she commands the part. She gives no quarter, for Helen doesn’t do subtle. Prenger does however, and once or twice we almost see a chink in the brass, but the soft side never quite makes it through.

A Taste of Honey is largely Jo’s story. Jo is pert, precocious and pushy, but it is her protection against a harsh world without a father, without an education, without any hope. Gemma Dobson plays the sullen but sassy teenager to a tee. One can almost feel the frustration as she longs to escape her lifestyle, but knows she cannot.

13. Gemma Dobson (Jo)_A Taste of Honey

It is worth noting that Delaney was Jo’s age when she wrote the play, and she lived in Salford. The opening dialogue between Helen and Jo is delivered ultra-fast and in a heavy Lancastrian accent, which takes a little while for the southern ear to tune into (although I have worked in Salford). However, the stinging whiplash of their interchange is only too clear. One hopes Delaney’s own adolescence was not this bleak. Nevertheless, her description in the programme for the first production in 1958 was as “the antithesis of London’s ‘angry young men’. She knows what she is angry about.”

Helen is already starting an affair with her latest “fancy man”, Peter, a wide-boy some fifteen years younger than Helen, who has made a tidy sum in shady deals. A snappy dresser, he sports a black patch across one eye, which he says he lost during the war. But we feel that it was not lost in military action, and we never find out how. Tom Varey imbues Peter with an air of cocky menace, giving him an uncomfortable aura of barely contained violence. Helen finds it exciting.

In a heated conversation between Jo and Helen (Jo never calls her mother) about one of Helen’s former lovers, Jo says he had an ugly the nose, only to get the flat repost, “It wasn’t his nose I was interested in.” In contrast Jo is really only looking for affection.

2. Durone Stokes (Jimmie) and Gemma Dobson (Jo)_A Taste of Honey

Along comes a West Indian sailor Jimmie, who woos Jo with apparent tenderness. Indeed, the scene with Jo on a playground swing and Jimmie singing My Love Is like a Red, Red Rose is genuinely affecting. He even proposes marriage and give her a ring, which she wears on a string, out of sight of Helen, who herself is now engaged to Peter. Durone Stokes makes a very personable Jimmie. With a disarming smile, he portrays the gentle nature of Jimmie that Jo falls for. Yet, Jimmie’s honeyed words count for nothing when Jo becomes pregnant. He disappears to sea, and we only see him again in Jo’s dreams.

Jo, abandon by Jimmie and left to fend for herself when Helen goes off to her wedding, lives a lonely life, pregnant and living on dog biscuits.

The second half opens with Geoff, an art student, supplementing his grant by singing in the jazz club. His song, Mad About the Boy, beautifully sung by Stuart Thompson, tells us right from the start where his proclivities lie. Even Jo understands this when she meets Geoff in a fairground, but she shrugs it off and they strike up a friendship. When she finds out that Jo is homeless, having been kicked out by his landlady (by implication because of his, then illegal, homosexuality) she offers him her couch for the night.

4. Gemma Dobson (Jo) and Stuart Thompson (Geoffrey)_A Taste of HoneyNeedless to say, they need each other, and a warm and close platonic relationship develops, reinforced by their mutual love of art in which they are both skilled. She quickly becomes reliant on him, and Geoff enjoys “mothering” Jo, as her nurse and housekeeper. He is a far better mother to her than Helen ever was. Stuart Thompson is outstanding as Geoff, fully immersing himself in the affectionate and forgiving nature of the character, all the mannerisms and voice infections being spot on. The bond between Jo and Geoff is the only truly loving relationship in the play, uncomplicated by sex, although Geoff does offer to marry her. We can even believe that we are heading for happy-ever-after. We know though that a big “but” is coming, for this is the realism of the kitchen sink drama.

Director Bijan Sheibani has understood that, although giving his A Taste of Honey a modern presentation, it must be seen within the customs and moral codes of sixty years ago. It strongly underlines how much our outlook has changed in those few decades. The characters are very real and their predicaments have evolved from the exigencies that the deprivations of the then quite recent War had put upon them.

Sheibani has not lost the grit of the original. There is that “but” and for Jo, when the taste of honey dissolves, only bitterness remains.

Mark Aspen
October 2019

Photography by Marc Brenner

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