I generally prefer a stage production to that of a movie but not on this occasion. Shelagh Delany’s first and most successful play, A Taste of Honey, is now showing at The Lyttleton and, having loved the movie version starring Dora Bryan and Rita Tushingham, I was very much looking forward to seeing it. It is rarely produced in London, since its debut at The Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1958, so this is the first opportunity I’ve had to view it on stage.
Delany wrote A Taste of Honey at nineteen years old in response to a Terence Rattigan play she’d seen. Finding the production dull and incapable of addressing social issues, she vowed she could do much better. Thus her debut play about life in a dingy Salford bedsit and featuring a hard-hearted, sexually active single mother, sex with a black sailor, teenage pregnancy and a gay flat mate was born. Quite a departure from the usual 1950’s fare of genteel drawing-room drama and thereby a landmark production.
The play opens with schoolgirl, Jo making yet another home move with her mother, Helen and right away we discover that this isn’t your normal mother/daughter relationship. The garrulous and sluttish Helen is much more interested in her new rich boyfriend, Peter, than caring for her daughter, so it is not surprising that the girl turns elsewhere for love and affection. Jimmie, the black sailor, certainly provides affection but not necessarily love, as when Jo becomes pregnant he has returned to the sea, unlikely ever to return. A kind of love does come into her life in the shape of Geoffrey, a gentle homosexual art student, who tries hard to look after her following her mother’s marriage to Peter and subsequent departure from the flat. It’s just a shame that this marriage also falls apart and Helen returns, thus ensuring that poor young Geoffrey has to do the leaving.
So, not a happy little piece, although the movie does have plenty of comic touches, thanks for the most part to Dora Bryan, who manages to imbue the dreadful feckless Helen with some humour. Lesley Sharp, on the other hand, does a great job capturing the loose morals and tartiness of the woman, but the relentless nastiness, doesn’t make for a sympathetic character.
Bijan Sheibani does try to lighten the mood by having the cast dance to Paul Englishby’s jazzy musical score at intervals during the play. But this only highlights the lack of connection between audience and cast and the incongruousness of what is actually happening to the characters on stage. Hildegard Bechtler’s design of back to back terraced houses and cobbled streets, whilst immensely clever, because of it’s elaborate size, also adds to the lack of intimacy. I was curiously unaffected by it all.
This is not to say that the performances aren’t good. Lesley Sharpe is every inch the tart (for the most part without the heart), whilst the excellent Kate O’Flynn makes the perfect waif-like, Jo, unable to hide her fear at impending motherhood. Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Jimmie makes a believable sailor, full of lovable charm and Harry Hepple brings much poignancy to his portrayal of the gay Geoff.
I came away feeling glad to have finally seen A Taste of Honey in the flesh, but sorry that it didn’t live up to my expectations.