The history of British theatre is punctuated by the arrival of unheralded new voices that redefine the possibilities of the stage. Of course, one thinks of Shakespeare – the archetypal upstart crow. But there are few voices as unheralded and yet significant as that of Shelagh Delaney.
The theatre of the 1950s was dominated by middle-class “drawing room” plays in the style of Noel Coward or Terrence Rattigan. Delaney’s “Taste of Honey” which premiered in London in 1958 was something altogether different. Set in her hometown of Salford, the play depicts working-class reality with unflinching realism. Interviewed some years later, Delaney recalled her motivations: “I had strong ideas about what I wanted to see in the theatre… Usually North Country people are shown as gormless, whereas in actual fact, they are very alive and cynical”.
These qualities are apparent right from the outset. Helen and her daughter, Josephine, have just arrived in their new lodgings:
Helen: This must be the place
Josephine: I don’t like it
Helen: I don’t give a damn what you like. When I find a place for us to live I have to consider something far more important than yours or anybody’s feelings – the rent! It’s all I can afford.
These three short lines of dialogue capture the essence of the play. The wry humour and cynicism in the face of hardship; a mother who actively dismisses warmth and love in favour of practicalities; a daughter who hopes for more.
When Helen leaves Josephine to marry a younger man, Josephine is forced to see out her own life. She has a brief but tender affair with a black sailor and falls pregnant. But it is only when she befriends Geoffrey, a young gay art student, who promises to look after her and her child– “to love her while she’s looking for love” – that Josephine has a vision of how life might be – a taste of honey.
It is a testament to the authenticity of Delaney’s writing that the play never feels as if it is “dealing with” the social issues that it presents. Rather, we are confronted by the fundamental humanity of all involved in all of its ugliness and beauty.
This new National Theatre production, directed by Bijan Sheibani, is set for the West End after the UK tour and it is easy to see why. Jodie Prenger and Gemma Dobson bring real sharpness to the central characters. Their angry exchanges sizzle with bitter sarcasm and Northern humour. Stuart Thompson, in his professional debut performance, brings great warmth and humanity to the role of Geoffrey. I imagine we may see much more of this promising young actor.
Much of the play takes place in Jospehine’s lodgings and Hildegard Bechtler’s stage design is a symphony of grey that evokes the dreariness of the circumstance but also includes a large window to one side through which the changing light brings promise of elsewhere. Special mention must also go to David O’Brien, Alex Davis and George Bird who are the ever-on-stage musicians who provide a downbeat jazz soundtrack that echoes the action.
Today, “A Taste of Honey” still feels ahead of its time. I would highly recommend this production of a true classic of British theatre.