29TH OCTOBER. CRUCIBLE. Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey marked an important moment in British theatre, presenting female working-class writing to the mainstream for the first time. The 1958 play was a huge hit, and a year after the death of Delaney it seems timely to revive her first play at the Crucible this autumn. […]

29TH OCTOBER.
CRUCIBLE.

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey marked an important moment in British theatre, presenting female working-class writing to the mainstream for the first time. The 1958 play was a huge hit, and a year after the death of Delaney it seems timely to revive her first play at the Crucible this autumn.

Polly Findley’s production, and particularly the performances of Katie West as Jo and Eva Pope as Helen, captured the comedy and bleakness which typifies Delaney’s writing vividly. Walking into the theatre we got an immediate sense of this contrast, as a jazz trio played out carefree hits from the 50s against the backdrop of a tired, drab flat on set. The musical accompaniment continued throughout the play as the production stayed loyal to Joan Littlewood’s original, recapitulating the 1950s flavour through each act.

A Taste of Honey is set in Salford and follows the lives and relationships of mother and daughter Helen and Jo as they move into a new flat to escape another one of Helen’s sexual exploits. As the play progresses Jo starts a relationship with a young black sailor, is abandoned by her mother, and later discovers she is pregnant.  She then begins a life with her gay housemate Geoff, who acts as surrogate husband and father-to-be before the dreaded Helen returns and kicks him out.

As much as the play is about social taboos of the era, it’s also about a teenage girl exploring her sexuality and Katie West did this with sensitivity. She never sentimentalised Jo, exposing her as whiny, shouty and self-involved, and yet played her with enough compassion to provoke empathy. Notable is the scene in which Jo comes on to Helen’s current lover Peter. West captured the genuine curiosity and tentative sexual desire of a teenager perfectly. West and Pope also managed to portray the destructive yet strangely dependent relationship between Jo and Helen with acute realism, so that when Helen returned in the third act it was with a real sense of dread.

Ultimately this is a play about the possibility of freedom in the context of poverty, bad up-bringing and a society full of prejudice, and though freedom may never come around it is in the rare moments of “honey” through which each character achieves some sort of escape. For the audience this honey is humour, and this production does a fantastic job of injecting Delaney’s writing with as much humour as intended without trivialising its darker content.

The only possible criticism of the production is whether it manages to truly capture 1950s Salford. Is it because the idea of a gay man helping to raise a straight woman’s child is just not a big deal anymore that the play itself is bound to feel dated? Or is it that the production itself was tentative about presenting 1950s taboos with enough conviction, leaving it feeling a little lacking in grit? Either way, it’s a production full of superb performances and well worth catching if you get the chance.

A Taste of Honey runs until 17th November. More info

PHOTO BY JOHAN PERSSON.

Review by Catherine Dickinson.