Unusual for its time, this is a kitchen-sink drama that’s almost exclusively about women; Helen and Jo, an unaffectionate, and seemingly contrasting, mother and daughter. With Britain recently released from the strictures of rationing, the effects of the Second World War hang heavy over their lives. Not only do they live in a shabby one-bedroom flat in a 1950s terraced street in Salford, but as we engage in their story, we learn more the about the social and moral expectations they struggle against.
Helen, played wonderfully by Lesley Sharp, is a forty-year old single mother, frequently abandoned by men with whom she’s had numerous affairs. Initially she seems brassy, loud and uncaring, casually leaving her daughter for the chance to escape. It is easy to suppose she enjoyed relative freedom during the war when she was in her twenties, but struggles with the stricter morality expected in peace time. Jo, meanwhile, is an eighteen year-old schoolgirl, presumably born around 1940, and has only ever known national restriction and austerity. Her mother’s caprices have created a sense of self-sufficiency which Jo, mistakenly, views as an ability to cope alone with very adult problems.
Despite their avowed differences, these women are more similar than they think. Helen is looking for a better life and craves respectability to avert neighbourhood gossip. When the play opens, they’ve moved to a new flat and you can only assume it’s to escape a recent scandal. Her daughter represents a past Helen wants to forget, and, as she believes, ‘bearing a child doesn’t place one under an obligation to it.’ Helen marries her latest beaux and leaves. Jo, meanwhile, has become secretly engaged to a sailor, who returns to duty leaving her pregnant. Like her mother, Jo clings to dreams of a better life where her lover returns to take care of her, which she masks with an air of casual indifference. She knows he’s never coming back and invites her homosexual friend to move in instead. Both women are looking for someone to take care of them, but know ultimately all they have is each other. And when their various men leave them, as they all inevitably do, they return to each other.
But it’s not a depressing play by any means. There’s something of the survivor about both women, and their wilful defiance of societal ‘rules’, played out in Helen’s affairs and in Jo’s inter-racial relationship and unmarried pregnancy. Although unsurprising to modern audiences, in the 1950s it would have been shocking. The poignant moments are accentuated by a melancholic jazz score and music offers them a periodic escape from everyday life. Both women sing, quote lyrics and dance joyously to the more light-hearted tunes that link scenes. The choice of jazz too reiterates the women’s commonality and rebellious elements of their characters. In some ways it reminded of the spirit of Alfie, the good one with Michael Caine (I’m pretending the other one was never made!) – that sense of episodic working class life, pervaded by unflagging optimism and opportunity in a changing world.
The set design was pretty impressive, the centrepiece being a rotating house filling half the stage; on one side the exterior walls, and the other, the living room of the flat – similar to An Inspector Calls. I really enjoyed this play and all the performances offered a nice balance of comedy and tragedy throughout, even the male roles which are considerably smaller. The female characters, though, are at the heart of this story and you leave with a sense of their strength and stoical acceptance of inevitability. Whatever happens to them and the child, they will survive. As Helen insightfully concludes, ‘you fell down, you get up . . . nobody else is going to carry you about.’
A Taste of Honey is at the National Theatre until 11 May. Tickets start at £28.