Shelagh Delaney was only 19 when she wrote A Taste of Honey, first staged in 1958. She’d been to see a dull play in Manchester by Terence Rattigan and felt she could do better. She sent it to Joan Littlewood, along with a note explaining that she was something of a theatre novice, but had left feeling that ‘I had discovered something that meant more to me than myself.’
That’s what great theatre should do. Take you outside of yourself. Provide you meaning. Make your reconsider things. As excellent as the National Theatre’s new adaptation of the seminal drama is, no doubt its an impact that was felt far more keenly back in the 1950s and 1960s. After all, A Taste of Honey features a single mother, an unwed pregnant girl, a gay best friend, and a black sailor. Racy stuff indeed.
Bijan Sheibani’s production for the National Theatre was first produced at the Lyttelton Theatre in 2014 and is designed by Hildegard Bechtler with sound design from Ian Dickinson, composition from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, lighting design by Paul Anderson and movement from Aline David. It’s currently on tour around the UK – and stopped off at Canterbury’s The Marlowe Theatre.
Jazz oozes out of the stage, smokily set. Helen (played by Jodie Prenger) enjoys her alcohol that ‘consoles from life’ as she tries to muddle through a life that hasn’t been fair to her and her daughter Jo (Gemma Dobson). She has ‘wear and tear on her soul’ and finds solace in the bottle and with men, and warns Jo that it’s ‘work or want in your future.’ She might seem to throw herself at any man who comes to the door, seeking marriage, but that’s all that was out there for women of her generation. Jo’s pregnancy puts her in a difficult situation as an unmarried woman, but the baby makes her feel important.
The prose is sparky and witty, and there are some great one liners. We’re invited into the moody living room of the women, although the large stage doesn’t convey the claustrophobia of the living situation . The songs from a three piece jazz band are well placed, and add to the rhythm of the play, punctuating it perfectly.
It might have been the eve of the time when everything changed alongside Larkin, Lady Chatterley, and The Beatles, but this was no liberal society. Yet Delaney aimed to make socially inclusive theatre that challenged boundaries.
Perhaps the reason that this show, as good as it was, didn’t hit home very hard is because we are far more liberal than back in the 1950s – even in today’s shadow of intolerances. The punchy impact that would have been seen on that stage at The Theatre Royal, Stratford, in 1958, just can’t resonate in the same way in 2019.
That’s not to take away from what Delaney did. She created a powerful piece of theatre at a time when the boys’ club still ruled, working class women didn’t have a voice, and gritty life in Salford didn’t belong on the stage. A Taste of Honey changed the theatre landscape. And for that reason it deserves to be seen, decades later.