25 May 2018.
Much has rightly been made of the legacy of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, with its influence on new generations of women writers, the pioneering depiction of working class life and its lingering presence in popular culture. What’s less clear is how much the play itself has to say to a contemporary audience and while it caused a sensation when premiered in 1958, this warm, sepia-tinged slice of northern life includes little that would be controversial now.
Set in 1950s Salford, it’s a tale that revolves around Jo, a teenager sharing a bed sit with her boozy, blousy mother Helen. After becoming pregnant as a result of a short heady relationship, she sets up home with a gay art student. Director Chris Lawson admirably aims for a subtle approach that eschews caricature, anchors itself in a gritty realism and searches for fresh perspectives.
Designer Sammy Dowson’s tight triangular set starkly conveys the gloomy squalor of the times. Tiles, floorboards and bricks are all coming loose in the cramped and sparsely furnished bed sit. The walls and furniture are mucky and there’s dirt and rubbish under the sofa. Characters are full of coughs and sniffles, and the air is thick with smog. Helen is seemingly always packing, unpacking or on the move – flitting from one short stay to the next, laden with cases.
Depressingly, there are still parallels with the poor quality housing conditions and unstable tenancies that endure today in the shadow of Salford’s bright shiny new buildings. Attitudes to race and homosexuality have however changed, and unsurprisingly some of the language and opinions in the play reek of another era. Jo’s exoticisation of her black boyfriend with her references to an ‘African prince’ can feel awkward, and the repeated jibes at gay Geof become painful. While the Coliseum can’t be held responsible for their audience’s reaction, it’s disappointing that, on the night I was there, a significant minority found the homophobic insults hurled at Geof to be laugh out loud funny.
Perhaps it’s partly a result of the production’s approach. Lawson has dialed down the potential excesses within Helen’s character, leaving a bit of a comic vacuum which is inadvertently filled by the bullying banter of her boyfriend Peter. As a result, the play’s most obnoxious character ends up with the lion’s share of the audience laughter.
It doesn’t help that while Phil Rowson shines as the mean-spirited Peter, for some reason Kerrie Taylor struggles to get to grips with Helen. Largely tone-deaf to the intricate rhythms of northern speech and the text itself, her character spends the first half afflicted by an adenoidal drone which leaves Delaney’s words too often squandered by flat delivery or mumbling. The performance does though convey the anxieties of a woman struggling with the passing of time. With the audience as her looking-glass, she worries away at her looks, nervously smoothing lines on her face, plumping her blonde locks and dabbing at her lipstick. In the second act, as Helen’s venom and volume rise, the characterisation belatedly hits it stride.
Gemma Dobson’s Jo is much more like it. When the focus shifts to her, and the relationships she forms, the production takes flight. Her Jo is gobby and moody, yet also intrinsically vulnerable.
Lights occasionally twinkle sparingly through small gaps in the set, like fleeting hopes and the relationship between Jo and sailor boyfriend Jimmie (Kenton Thomas) is invested with a similar ephemeral quality. Their interactions are strikingly light and airy – they smile, laugh and dance. The time they spend together is dream-like, precarious and suddenly out of reach, “he came in with Christmas and went out with the New Year”. It’s beautifully done.
Jo and Geof’s attempts at home-making have a deep poignancy. When they return from a trip to the fair with a teddy bear, Jo clutches at it with a childlike grip, a reminder that despite her pregnancy she is still only young herself. Their plans for the baby, interspersed with reciting of rhymes and gauche attempts at a more defined relationship, feel unreal as if they are playing at happy families. However, Geof’s motivations are complex and Max Runham subtly conveys his desire to be a father to a child, something otherwise denied to him as a gay man in 1950s Britain.
Jazz music accompanies the changes in scenes, and there’s a loose fluidity to Lawson’s production as characters dance or sing along. Lives are lived close together, and all tangled up. Scenes play out indoors while outside we see people arriving and leaving along an adjacent passageway, about to interrupt what’s going on or walk away from the fallout of their visit.
Ultimately, Delaney’s lean, lyrical script powers the play and, even sixty years after they were written, her words retain their allure. “A bit of love, a bit of lust and there you are. We don’t ask for life we have it thrust upon us”. Chris Lawson’s revival takes risks and, with its carefully applied dabs of artfulness and ability to find new layers of meaning, elevates what could otherwise have been just a pleasing period piece into something more bittersweet.
Images by Joel Chester Fildes