Watching the revival of A Taste of Honey, Rowena McIntosh finds that while some themes have lost their controversial appeal, others remain all too relevant
A Taste of Honey is the epitome of the kitchen sink drama, full of northern honesty and ‘working class’ harshness. Written by Salford woman and future Morrissey inspiration Shelagh Delaney, it debuted in 1958 before quickly moving to Broadway, starring Joan Plowight and Angela Lansbury, and then onto the silver screen in 1961. Brought to Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum in 2013 by director Tony Cownie, A Taste of Honey is a solid, if not entirely exciting, piece of theatre.
The protagonist Jo (Rebecca Ryan) is a headstrong teenage girl living precariously with her flaky alcoholic mother Helen (Lucy Black). The opening scene shows them arriving in the latest of what appears to have been a lifelong string of dingy lodgings. We aren’t told the location but it seems safe to assume we are near the Salford docks. The façade of the house is one in a row of run-down red brick terraces, the backdrop clearly alludes to an industrial skyline, the characters refer to a dirty river “like lead” and a ship’s horn moans at intervals throughout – often at pivotal, lonely moments in Jo’s story.
That story is acrimonious and difficult from the start. Jo and Helen are clearly reliant on one another but a strong current of disdain runs between them. Helen is self-interested and cynical while Jo is angry and bitter at her mother’s apparent indifference and neglect of her. The bickering between them is immediate and almost constant, periodically rising to real moments of fury.
Both women put in excellent performances throughout, particularly Lucy Black, whose perfectly timed comedic flippancy not only induced many a laugh from the audience but also seamlessly portrayed the disinterested and somewhat hardened shell of one who acutely feels life’s injustice. Shameless star Rebecca Ryan tackles head-on the rage of the dissatisfied, disappointed and under-stimulated teenager and the rebellion it can result in. However, at times her outbursts and tirades became a little grating and repetitive, almost leaving me wishing the scene would end so I could absorb what was actually being said.
It seems, though, that Jo was not a character supposed to make the audience feel comfortable. Living on nothing, poorly educated, treated by her mother as an inconvenient tag-along: on paper she certainly induces sympathy. On stage, Jo is a fairly abrasive character and she shows only moments of likeability: her naïvety in a controversial first love for black sailor Jimmy (Adrien Decosta) and her apparent fondness and care for Geoffrey (Charlie Ryan), her gay companion in the second half of the play. While she might not have always been easy to listen to, Rebecca Ryan certainly did a good job of conveying both the hardness of Jo and the sense that ultimately, despite her sharpness and quick wit, this is a young girl at high risk of evolving into her mother – the very woman she dislikes the most.
The staging lent itself well to this sense of history repeating. A revolving set of red brick terrace, sparse living room and pokey bedroom avoided any sense of gimmick. Instead, scenes and settings were delightfully fluid, with characters almost effortlessly flowing in and out of doors, into semi-visible spaces and disappearing as the set rotated in a way that implied the passing of time, seasons, and mood. As Helen left Jo to tackle life alone first with Jimmy and then with Geoffrey, the audience saw Jo assume the space her mother vacated and wondered whether Helen’s earlier years had been much the same.
Shelagh Delaney was only 18 when she wrote A Taste of Honey, in a matter of two weeks, after dropping out of school at 16 and working her way through a handful of low paid jobs. Although a dramatization of a storyline involving single mothers and teenage pregnancy is run of the mill soap opera material today, the play’s analysis of what it means to “be a woman” must have been remarkably insightful in the late 1950s.
Delaney’s male characters were used here to good effect with both women showing a somewhat reluctant acceptance of the need for the men in their lives, no matter how inadequate they may be. Keith Fleming put in a convincing performance as Helen’s drunken philandering man-friend Peter, while Adrian Decosta’s Jimmy felt somewhat stilted and unnatural. His presence felt too clean – too staged. However, it is entirely possible that this was Delaney’s intention for the character: a dreamlike figure that dips into and changes Jo’s life but then leaves again just as quickly.
Delaney didn’t stop at teenage pregnancy and black lovers for her agenda-pushing material and tackled another taboo of the time – the gay man – with a second half of the play largely revolving around Jo’s somewhat forced domesticity with wannabe surrogate father Geoffrey. Again, it is a trope that no longer carries the challenging controversy that it would have at the time of debut. Unfortunately, although performances were thorough, the to-ing and fro-ing of Jo and Geoffrey’s microcosmic existence was fairly uninspiring, bordering on dull until towards the end.
A Taste of Honey pushed the envelope in late 1950s Britain and for this reason alone it is interesting to see it brought back to life. While watching some solid and pithy performances, I found myself wondering what these issues and ideas meant to Joe Public when the play debuted. The baby-boomer era was arguably a moment when there was a growing recognition of the divisions and inequalities that existed in postwar Britain with the birth of the welfare state, the growing civil rights movement and burgeoning second wave feminism.
A Taste of Honey touches on all of these themes, emphasising the concept of the cyclical nature of poverty and disadvantage. Starting with a single mother living on the breadline with a distinct cynicism and lack of prospect, the play then unapologetically charts her daughter’s repeated journey into the same life where the future seems almost certainly bleak. It is this aspect of the play that resonated the most in a current context. In today’s Britain, where women are among the hardest hit by benefit cuts, poverty of circumstances and aspirations is far from being an irrelevant matter for examination.
A Taste of Honey is at The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh until 9 February.
Photos are used with permission and are by Alan McCredie.