A Taste of Honey at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh (Tues 24th to Sat 28th September) brings to life in this National Theatre production one of the most iconic social dramas of British theatre and film by writer Shelagh Delaney. The story of how a young 19 year old writer with no previous experience of writing a play for the stage not only created this iconic work, but did so in a burst of creativity over a few weeks, is now the stuff of writing legend. Shelagh Delaney’s ability to somehow capture a moment in time as many social and economic dynamics were beginning to change is portrayed perfectly here by Jodie Prenger as Helen and Gemma Dobson as Josephine in this very dysfunctional mother and daughter relationship.
Is Helen a bad mother to Joesephine? There is no real answer to that question, but the lifestyle that Helen leads and the choices that she makes have a definite effect upon how our now approaching working age Josephine reacts not only to her, but to other people in her life, and Shelagh Delaney, like all the very best writers, lets her words tell the story here without ever stepping over into preaching or moralising to her audience. Teenage daughters and mothers so often seem to be at odds with each other, this fact seems to be part of the process of growing up, but here that conflict is often moving into outright hostility from both of them.
Many people will probably know A Taste of Honey best from the classic 1961 film adaption starring Dora Bryan (Helen) and Rita Tushingham (Jo), and that gritty reality of working class living conditions for many at the time is recreated here on stage by a very good set and costume design (Hildegard Bechtler) that gives our cast a realistic world of a very run down working class Salford in the late 1950s to live in. The addition of a live three piece jazz band in a bar adds a lovely touch of period music as we move also at times into the sounds of “R & B” that would a few years later start to drive the British Soul Music scene. There is in this production great attention to period detail and that extends even to the text graphics used in our production’s title.
There are some fine portrayals here and Tom Varey gives us a strong performance as the easy to dislike Peter as Helen moves from one bad relationship to another.
Driving of course so much of this drama is Jo’s choice of boyfriend, and it is hard now, 60 years on from when this drama was originally written and set, to truly grasp the social taboos that were being broken here by Jo having a relationship with a black man, and Durone Stokes gives us in his portrayal of Jimmie not a stereotype, but someone of intelligence and an air of refinement.
Contemporary social dramas like this one as the years pass by, all too quickly become “social history” dramas and that will always happen as our attitudes and viewpoints change. As much a part of that change as anything here in attitudes as a contrast between then and now is art student Geoffrey, and Stuart Thompson brings his character to life with a very gentle touch that allows for an emotional softness to his character to come out, and this is important as none of the other main characters really have that level of vulnerability to them. A lovely little sequence with Geoff singing Noel Coward’s “Mad About The Boy” returns us to the original thoughts behind this song by its writer, a song not about a girl thinking about her boy, but about his own long term partner.
Social historians have written much about this work over the years, but it is when a director like Bijan Sheibani works with a talented cast like this that you really start to understand the world post war housing shortages, poor housing conditions, economics and social attitudes of the day that Shelagh Delaney was writing about. Sadly we do seem all too often as a society, even after all these years to be returning in far too many areas to the world of “A Taste of Honey”.
Review by Tom King