BWW Review: A TASTE OF HONEY, Richmond Theatre
Shelagh Delaney was known for putting working class women centre-stage. It is remarkable to think that she was only 19 when she penned A Taste Of Honey, a bleak depiction of working class life in post-war Britain where people did not live, but simply tried to exist.
It is even more significant that she was a young, uneducated, Northern woman succeeding in a theatrical world that was run for and by an educated elite of men. The National Theatre's excellent 2014 version now returns for a national tour before transferring to the Trafalgar Studios next year.
Set in a grubby flat in 1950s Salford, Helen and her daughter Jo are constantly battling against their bleak and poverty-striken existence. Jo begins a relationship with black sailor Jimmie and becomes pregnant. She is then abandoned by both her mother and Jimmie. Jo then moves in with her gay friend Geoffrey, as she and Helen must confront the harsh consequences of their actions.
Back in 1958, the story of a young white girl made pregnant by a black man and then going to live with a homosexual was controversial to say the least. Today, the shock and scandal are mostly absent, but the bleakness and bickering of everyday life is starkly portrayed. Delaney's triumph remains the use of sharp language and dialogue that brings the gritty, dirty and incredibly hard life of the characters to life.
This is not a play with a neat and positive message where working-class poverty is rallied against by hard work and goodness. Delaney's play is not a celebration of strong women either; Helen is irresponsible, selfish and uninterested in motherhood; she can afford booze and cigarettes, but not a warm place to live. Jo is a direct product of her environment; mouthy, loud, vulnerable and without any ambition.
Jodie Prenger is brilliant in the role of Helen; blousy and cruel with a huge blond bouffant hairstyle. She is completely believable as a woman irritated by the inconvenience of having a daughter, as she wants to move from man to man. Prenger has an elegant poise that belies her situation, as though she believes she deserves to be elsewhere.
Jo is well played by Gemma Dobson. She is bolshy and rude as she fights against her mother's neglect, but she also has flashes of abject vulnerability and a basic need for guidance and help. The success is that Dobson and Prenger have a brilliantly spiky chemistry, with staccato dialogue as they hurl their lines at each other. It feels authentic and tragically real.
The character of sailor Jimmie betrays the only thinness to the play; Durone Stokes is warm and likable in the role, but is given little to do. Elsewhere, Tom Varey makes a suitably creepy and nasty Peter. As Helen's new husband he is her new hope, but the audience is aware that no one in this play is destined for happiness.
Stuart Thompson makes an excellent professional stage debut as Jo's gay friend Geoffrey. He avoids any cliché and remains warm, sensitive and loyal.
The drama is played out with the accompaniment of a three-piece jazz band, with the cast singing snatches of songs during the show. This feels suitable and smoothly integrated, but it's a shame Prenger isn't given more singing, as her voice is perfect for the play; smoky, languid, with a hint of abject sadness.
Director Bijan Sheibani creates natural positioning and movement. It is a shame that sight-lines in Richmond are interrupted slightly by the use of a window at one side of the stage and also the temporary positioning of a table at the front.
These are minor quibbles with a production that entertains as much as it provokes deep thought. The subject matter may no longer be as shocking as it once was, but Delaney's writing remains as brutal and stark as ever.
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner