In the 1950s, there was a rhyme chanted at street games to eliminate players. It involved being ‘out, with a dirty washing clout right over your face’. The effect on the audiences when 18 year old Shelagh Delaney’s debut play was first performed in 1958 must have been like that proverbial slap on the coupon.
Fifty five years later, in a time where everyone is supposed to have that peculiar quality of being ‘streetwise’, this so-called ‘kitchen sink drama’, that has become a classic of British Theatre, has lost little of its initial impact.
Set in 1950s Salford, the five character play relates the tale of teenage Jo (Rebecca Ryan), her mother, Helen (Lucy Black), and their feckless, itinerant lifestyle. Lonely and out of things, Jo finds a kind of love with a black sailor.
Abandoned by her lover who returns to sea and her mother who marries spiv and prime chancer, Peter (Keith Fleming), for ‘a wallet full of reasons’, she finds real friendship and another kind of love in her gay friend, Geoff (Charlie Ryan).
Within a fast paced and often funny dialogue, the play covers issues of poverty, race, parenthood, loneliness, gender and sex, all of which are just as relevant today albeit for shifted reasons. The two main characters speak directly to the audience, seeking alliances in their points of view and displaying mother daughter dynamics that didn’t come from the pages of Woman’s Own.
The play was made into a memorable film in 1961 where Rita Tushingham made the character Jo her own and is fixed in the minds of cinema goers of a certain vintage, but Rebecca Ryan’s interpretation was outstanding and assured throughout. Keith Fleming’s character Peter with his eye patch and pea-on-a-dumpling hat was cariacatured and tipping into vaudevillian but this may have been a ploy to reflect his unsympathetic status.
Charlie Ryan’s Geoffrey gave Jo a convincing ‘big sister’ relationship but his hair style too ‘now’ - definitely not a ‘50s bop or DA - and his brown suede shoes desert boots should have been ‘size 8 Italian casuals'.
Lucy Black’s Helen captured the character’s essence; a self-confessed useless and selfish mother trying to do her best difficult times and circumstances.
The slim but pivotal role of Jimmy or The Boy was finely done by Adrian Decosta. Tunes from the era from Somewhere Over the Rainbow through Que sera sera to Dream Dream Dream and including Wagner’s Bridal Chorus added poignancy to each scene end and were accompanied by the cheeky wee trills that are the trademark of Edinburgh’s trumpet legend John Sampson.
The revolving set of the slum’s interiors with its battered old furniture and street scene was full of symbolic sharp angles and grim grey images in the background that helped set the atmosphere.
The second act was less tight, less dynamic and the fourth wall was hardly broken at all, to the piece’s detriment by that time, but this production is a fitting tribute to a fine writer who died just over a year ago and whose work put the situation of working class women in the spotlight while the (straight) men are shown to evaporate or be buffoons. It reflected the sensibilities of the time showing it wasn’t all the clichés of frigidaires and happy families round the hearth.
Things were certainly not always, as the song of the play’s name suggested, ‘sweeter than wine’ but this production is worth tasting.
18 January- 9 February 2013.
Tuesday – Saturday, 7.45pm (Matinees 23, 26, 30 January and 2, 6, and 9 February, 2.30pm)