A Taste of Honey is one of the great British mid-century plays, a piece of theatre written by a 19-year old in 1958 that seems to scream in the face of the witty middle class comedies and highly wrought dramas that came before it, placing not only two women centre stage but offering an unflinching examination of working class life in industrial Salford. The century before, Victor Hugo described the poverty of women as a far greater burden than that of men for the further bodily degradation it can lead to, and Shelagh Delaney uses this idea in her debut play, trapping mother and daughter in a lifestyle forced on them by the social limitations of the time, while giving them a pride and resiliance to bear their situation with an outward strength.
This co-production by the National Theatre, directed by Bijan Sheibani, has toured much of the UK this year earning rave reviews and now arrives at the main house of the Trafalgar Studios for an extended run. The last time this play was staged in the West End was also a National Theatre production, with Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn in the leading roles and it continues to fascinate in frequent revivals around the country.
In our more permissive times, with greater equality rights and the expectation of work for self-sustenance, the position of women 60-years on should be very different. Yet Delaney’s insight feels as fresh and relevant as ever, as socially dictated notions of beauty, of promiscuity, motherhood and even marriage have changed far less than we imagine, making the characters of Helen and Jo still all too rare stage examples of complex and contradictory female leads.
Sheibani’s touring production sets Delaney’s play in a different context, and, as he did with his exuberant production of The Barber Shop Chronicles, uses music to underscore and drive the drama as well as linking to Helen’s former life as a club singer. It evokes the wider feel of the late 1950s and early 60s, the shifting tone of the decade and the sultry romance of its music, while connecting with the notion of impossible dreams that the play explores. This is a key theme in which both women pursue and hope for a better, easier and more respectable life knowing that they have only themselves and the grim reality of their lives to fall back on, something from which neither will ever escape.
There is an almost cinematic inclusion of live music – a drum kit, double bass and piano – which used in this way captures beat and rhythm within the action, underscoring moments of change, redirection and dramatic intensity in a scene while linking to the movie history of this piece. It’s a technique that Ed Stambollouian used to great effect in Pinter at the Pinter Collection Four last year for his vibrant interpretation of Night School, and while Sheibani applies the concept to set his production of A Taste of Honey apart, the overall effect inventively opens-out the emotional and political undercurrents of the play while creating a directorial flow between scenes that seamlessly shifts the action across ten-months in which the lives of Helen and Jo change but also stay remarkably the same.
There are so many fascinating aspects to this play that capture a particular moment in time including attitudes to inter-racial relationships and homosexuality, but are also timeless in their concern for the circularity of women’s lives and how easily history repeats itself. All of these themes emerge strongly in Sheibani’s production that simultaneously emphasises traditional social structures and its power balance while bringing an energy through the music and the staging that shows a generation on the cusp of change as Jo’s more relaxed attitudes to race and sexuality clash with Helen’s dismissive and sometimes traditionally bigoted expression. And as much as they appear to fight against it on the surface, both still hide behind the desire for respectability, fearing the gossip and disgrace that comes from stepping outside social norms.
Yet, even in 2019, there is still an expectation that all women want to be wives and mothers and it is this which makes the production feel so vital. The lack of maternal instinct or care both Jo and Helen express remains quite pointed, so when Helen abandons her 17-year old daughter at the end of Act One to follow her latest man, it remains a shocking and selfish moment, despite being a frequent occurrence as Jo later explains. Likewise, after Jo is abandoned by Jimmie she openly expresses a desire to kill the unborn child she doesn’t want. Both still create a frisson through the audience, and here Delaney’s (and Hugo’s) point is writ large, women caged by circumstances and forced into roles they have neither the desire or capacity to play with no means of support or escape.
It’s clear in this production how similar Helen and Jo really are, with Sheibani emphasising the frightening repetition of history in which Jo first despises then seems doomed to repeat the mistakes of her mother in a life filled with a succession of ineffectual men, momentary pleasures and unfulfillment. There is a feel of endlessness to their days with Helen having only reached her 40th birthday with plenty of life – and even the possibility of further children – still open to her, while the slow heat-filled months of Jo’s pregnancy seem to drag for her, a grinding cycle in which both struggle to maintain hope as each disappointment returns them back to the start before it all begins again when the next man comes along.
The character of Helen has been interpreted in various ways, but here she is a Diana Dors-type, perfectly made-up and stylishly dressed at all times even with a heavy cold at the start of the play. She makes for a stark contrast with her dank surroundings, the utilitarian privation of her one-room flat is a place she barely notices as she thinks ahead to the next opportunity. Both in spite and because of her past, there is a pragmatic dignity about Helen, she knows her worth and can take care of herself after every mishap, refusing to succumb to any form of emotionalism, insisting to her daughter that she must carry on, head held high come what may.
Jodie Prenger makes Helen less girlish than some interpretations but still a tenacious and glamorous figure, supported by a couple of musical numbers from the era that suit her voice and style. She has a seductive quality that explains her continued allure to certain types of terribly inappropriate men, while suggesting this hard surface knocked into shape by a life of relying solely on her wits and her charms to get by. Prenger makes Helen at once world weary, knowing (like the Mistress in Evita) that she will inevitably end-up alone again, but also hopeful that her past can be erased by marriage to the right man, a dream of suburban comfort and domesticity that motivates Helen to pick herself up after every knock.
But Prenger also finds the conflicting emotions beneath the surface, the confusion of a woman who wants to feel maternal, to love and to help her daughter but cannot subsume her own desires. You see clearly Helen’s fear that Jo will repeat her mistakes while doing little to prevent it, and when her relationship with Peter first soars and then crumbles rapidly into alcoholism and implied domestic violence, a fascinating collection of expressions sweep across Prenger’s face in quick succession, fear, anger, determination and regret vie for primacy as we see Helen trying to save face as she searches her inner reserves for the strength to endure her latest bad choice.
Jo has a lot of growing-up to do across the two hours of Delaney’s play, starting as a sullen and disapproving schoolgirl who encounters her first taste of love, heartbreak and the inevitable consequences of freedom in just a few months. Gemma Dobson navigates the extremes of the role with skill, conveying Jo’s youth and naivety extremely well while also showing her maturity and self-sufficiency as the action unfolds. There is a sense that Jo was never really a child, unable to enjoy the same careless freedom as others, shaped by her often absent mother whose refused intimacy breeds a stubborn resentment in Jo. Dobson’s Jo develops an interesting chemistry with Prenger, a convincingly taut mother-daughter relationship that feels complex but also satisfying, knowing that they will always return to each other somehow.
Yet, Jo is more sensitive than Helen, lacking her experience of life and not yet sure who she is, Jo dreams of romance and escape in a far more sentimental way than her mother. Even after her abandonment, Jo continues to daydream about Jimmie and an idealised form of love and relationships that he embodies for her which Dobson makes credible and sympathetic as the character indulges her hope of escape and freedom from the confines of her homelife. Through this, the audience is shown that Jo cannot cope alone and her rapid adoption of Geoffrey as pseudo-husband and companion is setting in motion a chain of events that will ultimately lead to Jo becoming a version of Helen.
Stuart Thompson makes his professional debut as Geoffrey – a character whose open homosexuality was radical ten years before decriminalisation – and brings a warmth to the role as he also weighs-up the veneer of respectability, considering on the one hand whether to pursue a relationship with Jo while bringing domestic calm to their grimy flat. Thompson also provides some musical linking between scenes in Act Two, while Geoffrey’s dedication to Jo is tested by Helen’s return, allowing the actor to align the character’s weaknesses with the other men in the play including Tom Varey’s volatile Peter and Durone Stokes’s Jimmie.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set suggests the deprivation of the Lancashire slums but the one-room flat takes on a homeliness as the story unfolds with minor changes to the decor that reflect the central characters’ evolving relationship, while Paul Anderon’s lighting takes the audience from the sensual and atmospheric musical scene changes to the intense heat of summer as the two women are caught in a glare of social expectation. Occasionally the lines feel a little stilted largely due to the self-conscious stageyness of Delaney’s writing in places that creates an occasional sense of artificiality in the the drama, but Sheibani’s innovative use of music to underpin key moments in the story helps to galvanise the production – although the permanently onstage musicians could look a little less bored, they are as visible to the audience and as integral to Sheibani’s vision as the actors. Still, Delaney’s play feels as prescient as ever and with its comment on the burden of expectation placed on women, class struggle, race and sexuality, more than six decades on it’s lost none of its bite.