On its debut in 1958, A Taste of Honey caused quite a few feathers to ruffle. Shelagh Delaney’s tale of a working class Salford mother and daughter shocked people who liked to be shocked with its overt female sexuality, teenage pregnancy, interracial sex and homosexuality, then, of course, illegal. Delaney was only 18 when she wrote her game-changing play, penning it in response to seeing a production of Terence Rattigan’s Variations on A Theme in Manchester that she thought was stuffy, boring and old-fashioned.
There’s nothing boring, or even old-fashioned despite the 1950s setting, about this National Theatre production. In fact the past looks pleasing retro, Lesley Sharp’s gowns and undergarments are very Mad Men glam and even the gas works that loom over the back-to-backs seems romantic, but maybe that’s just the Smiths’ fan in me (as an aside, it was fun playing Smiths’ lyrics bingo – I got two).
The story is a simple one; Helen drags her daughter Jo (Port‘s Kate O’Flynn) from dingy flat to dingy flat across Greater Manchester. Helen likes to pretend it’s because she’s a free spirit but in reality she’s usually running away from a man. In this case the man, one-eyed Peter with a pirate style patch and a stash of gold, tracks her down with little trouble and whisks Helen away during Christmas leaving Jo alone (and not for the first time) .
Helen and Jo relish their frequent, nasty arguments, but beneath the bravado and biting words, Jo wants to be loved and wanted by her mother. Her loneliness drives her into the arms of a black sailor, who sticks around long enough to propose and take her to bed only to then vanish across the big blue sea. Left alone after Helen marries the increasingly brutal Peter, Jo’s salvation is Jeffery, a gay man who becomes her protector, cleaner, dress-maker and only friend.
While it caused consternation in the 1950s, A Taste of Honey barely raises an eyebrow these days, even among the National’s demographic. For a contemporary audience the most shocking aspect is the dingy bedsit and the thought of sharing a bathroom not only with people down the corridor, but also a family of cockroaches. Shaking off its shocking shackles meant that the focus is on the mother-daughter relationship. It’s a vicious, complicated one, played with vigour by the two leads. Lesley Sharp’s Helen is flamboyant, glamorous and cruel and never still. When it looks like her sharp edges have been blunted and you begin to think you’ve misjudged her only for her to bite back with added venom.
There is humour and warmth in A Taste of Honey, but it also pulsates with anger and resentment at being stuck in the quagmire of life. Not that they are whingers, Helen and Jo – and they are far more alike than either of them would care to admit – are tough and resolute in their decisions, always ready to pick themselves up again. The performances from the two leads are both fantastic, Lesley Sharp’s Helen is a multi-layered, complex character – brittle, girly, mean and needy, while O’Flynn reflects a lot of these characteristics back at her stage mother, heightening the similarities between while retaining her individuality.
Despite its of-its-time themes, A Taste of Honey feels fresh and relevant, now in its final few weeks its worth trying to catch this great production of a landmark British play.
A Taste of Honey runs until 11 May. For tickets and more information visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.
by Suzanne Elliott