A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey made its first appearance at the Stratford East Theatre, London. Back in 1958, topics such as teenage pregnancy, inter-race relations and homosexuality were gossiped about over the garden fence: whispered about privately in disapproving, ignorant tones, rather than shouted about loudly in political, public arenas, rationalised and understood.
It is a raw tale of a selfish, brassy mother who forgets her daughter when ‘happy’ – that is, when caught up in the arms of the latest lecherous, boozy, flash-Harry. Her daughter Jo, hardened by a lifetime of neglect, becomes pregnant after a brief relationship with a black sailor and is nursed through her pregnancy by her gay friend Geoffrey.
It is difficult to imagine now how shocking all this must have been, particularly as the characters were not presentations of the contemporary stereotypes, but real people; nuanced and complex. Helen, the mother, is herself a victim of circumstance and is vaguely negligent rather than actively malicious.
The sailor, Jimmy, quotes Shakespeare and Geoffrey demonstrates more down-to-earth common sense than either Jo or her mother. Set in a dingy boarding house among the cobbled back-streets of Manchester, the stage depicted a dreary bleakness, any colour long ago leeched out and drained away.
Against this backdrop, the protagonists struggle not to let their somewhat hopeless lives get them down – and mostly succeed. Jo, played by Rebecca Ryan of TV’s ‘Shameless’ fame, is feisty and resilient and Helen, played by Lucy Black, is both tough and an expert at keeping up appearances – especially practiced at making the best of her own, fading outward façade, on which, ‘every line tells a dirty story’.
The play itself is still resonant and engaging, although a kick into the 21st century could prevent its now-dated attitudes from being viewed through a mirror of obverse nostalgia. In this production, the attempt to present a modern understanding of the characters while simultaneously remaining faithful to the style of the original, was perhaps responsible for Jo displaying too little vulnerability and Helen too much, making it difficult to fully sympathise with either.
Having said that, Delaney’s script is still poetically forthright and some fine acting performances make this production well worth a viewing.
18 January- 9 February 2013.
Tuesday – Saturday, 7.45pm (Matinees 23, 26, 30 January and 2, 6, and 9 February, 2.30pm)