A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney’s debut play (written when she was just 19 years old), proves that being a product of its time does not stop art from being important to contemporary audiences. Bijan Sheibani’s current touring production, for the National Theatre and showing at Trafalgar Studios in London this holiday season, reiterates this point. When the play premiered at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1958, it was considered part of the post-war ‘kitchen sink’ genre because of how it revolutionised British theatre by questioning class, race, gender and sexuality in mid-20th century Britain.
Set in Salford in North West England, A Taste of Honey depicts the harsh reality of life for victims of poverty, categorising it as a play of gritty social realism. The plot begins with 18-year-old Jo (Gemma Dobson) and her mother Helen (Jodie Prenger) moving into a new flat, highlighting the tensions in their relationship and the difficulties of their lifestyle from the very beginning. Alongside the domestic problems is an acknowledgement of wider societal issues at the time – Jo observes how “the whole city smells” and Helen sarcastically comments how “the rich get rich and the poor get children.” There is an underlying feminist commentary also, primarily in both the central characters’ objectification as objects of sexual desire and the way they are mistreated by the men in their lives.
As the play progresses, we begin to recognise quite an inconsistent dynamic between mother and daughter: Jo calls her mother by her first name and resents the fact that she appears to have “so much love for everybody else and none for me”; yet Helen’s anger at Jo’s marriage, and concern about making sure she goes to the clinic during her pregnancy, would suggest that she really does care about her daughter, even if it is not manifested in a conventional way. At one point, Jo sticks up for her mother, stating that, “whatever else she may be, she’s not prejudiced against colour”, yet she turns out to be prejudiced against both colour and sexuality. This production manages to draw attention to the pair’s strained relationship without ever ignoring their underlying feelings towards one another.
The set, by Hildegard Bechtler, creates an atmosphere in which it becomes clear that this cramped and grotty flat is not only where most of the play’s action will take place, but much of the characters’ lives too. Trafalgar Studios is itself quite an intimate setting: small and all on one level, it almost feels as if the theatre and stage have come together into one. Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s music, consisting of a discreet but always present three-piece Jazz band – piano, double bass and drums – begins before the actors have even come onto the stage and continues to accompany them throughout the story. There are attempts to make the living space nicer, such as adding a lampshade to the naked bulb, putting plants on top of the piano and adding a rug, seen particularly once Helen has moved out and Jo’s friend Geof (Stuart Thompson) moves in. However, no amount of adornment can override Jo and Helen’s confinement in both the physical and metaphorical life they lead.
The play’s cultural resonance is proved by the literary and musical references it has since inspired: Morrissey of The Smiths asserts that “at least 50 percent of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney”, using her photo as album and song cover artworks, and borrowing quotations from the play. Its influence also appears in the album Thieving by Akira the Don, and is referred to in the book On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. Evidently, A Taste of Honey is a play that will always be important, especially while productions like this one continue to bring it to life.
Showing until 29 February 2020.
– Esther Huntington-Whiteley