A Taste Of Honey, Theatre Review, Grand Opera House, Belfast, October 15th, 2019
By Conor O’Neill
To think this was written by a 19-year-old is staggering. To think that 19-year-old had the very basics of education and was almost alien to theatre is beyond that.
Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play A Taste Of Honey tackles subjects many contemporary writers, more mature in years, and of greater professional stature would find difficult to approach. An unfit mother raises a child in early post WWII Salford where rationing is still a recent memory. Prostitutes and bookies are around every corner; homosexuality is illegal, scorn meets every loose woman and teenage pregnancy not the hot ticket to a life of benefits and a turn-key flat they are today. In 1950s Salford housing is unfit for human inhabitation, the gas doesn’t work, every penny must be stretched, every opportunity taken, men merely a “Wallet full of reasons.”
But that’s all to unravel yet. The Grand Opera House’s stage has rarely seemed so squalid. An upright piano is to the front left to the audience’s eye, a double bass in the centre and just to our right a sparse drumkit.
The trio pluck, splash and tinkle away, nothing recognisable but homely, relaxing and apt for the set design. A curvaceous blonde smokes a cigarette, leans against the upright and sings. This is not a musical but rather a bleak, life study with some songs thrown in. The band are moved to make way for the action.
The blonde is fortysomething, Helen (Jodie Pringer) with a lust for men and booze in equal measure. Brash and cynical, mother and daughter have done yet another runner. 17-year-old Josephine (Gemma Dobson) moans about the state of the place, “When I look for somewhere to live I have to consider more than your feelings.”, “Lovely view of the gas works.” retorts the mother. This opening conversation sets the tone for the rest of the relationship.
There’s no ‘mummy’ or cute names here. Both call each other by their first names. Jo is treated like an adult and Helen sees little reason why not to offer the daughter drink at every opportunity.
Peter arrives, “I had to chase you all over the city.” The eye-patched wideboy (Tom Varey) is Helen’s latest beau. She’s old enough to be his mother but not old enough to know better; Jo for her lack of years has an insight Helen will probably never find. But insight won’t take a girl far if she hasn’t the wisdom to apply it.
Due to loneliness Jo falls for the charms black sailor Jimmie (Durone Stokes). Swept off her feet when Helen does return she can see a rare sparkle, “You never forget your first time.”
Alone again, the second act begins. “I’m mad about the boy” sings Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson) and with a snippet of a song nails his colours to the mast. As charming as sailor Jimmie was, Geoff is the sort to settle with. Arty and with respect for women, even if they’re not his type.
Geoff is the only male character to come across well in this National Theatre production. Described as a Feminist play and to her chagrin labelled an ‘angry young woman’ Delaney’s content may not be as confrontational now as they were in the late 1950s but the words and characters certainly resonate.
There are a few jarring moments where the understudies perform set changes and there’s confusion as Jimmie appears like a ghostly apparition as Jo laments, but the big talents that are Jodie Pringer and Jemma Dobson plus the brilliance of our jazz trio will undoubtedly leave you a happy customer.
Director Bijan Sheibani and the creative team may not have got it right 100% of the time, but most of the time they were pretty damn close.
A Taste Of Honey runs until and including Saturday, October 19th with matinee performances on Thursday and Saturday.
For booking info visit http://www.goh.co.uk or call the box office on 02890 241919