Thursday 24 October 2019

A Taste of Honey

Curve, Leicester
22nd October, 2019

And what part do you play in this little Victorian melodrama?

I didn’t really get the significance of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) when I initially read it at university. Seeing it for the first time and hearing the rhythm in the language and Delaney’s evocation of place and character, I’m beginning to understand how this was such a ground-breaking play in 1958. What’s more is that Bijan Sheibani’s production (first seen at the National Theatre in 2014) breathes new life into it with an on-set band.

Despite being set in 1958, Sheibani’s production has a modernity carrying through it, mainly thanks to Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s music. A pianist-bassist-drummer Jazz trio are positioned disparately across the stage, accompanying the dialogue. Although it sounds like this could be jarring or distracting, it complements the action extremely well, reminding me a bit of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014). If a character is singing joyfully or reciting a nursery rhyme, the music is jingly and playful, whereas it hints more at a sense of danger when the text delves into darker territory. Reimaginings of songs such as ‘Mad about the boy’ and ‘Nature Boy’ contribute to depth of character, and the musical transitions between scenes create a sense of fluidity.

Hildegard Bechtler’s Salford sink estate design also contributes to the overarching sense of working-class ennui. Moving concrete blocks become the walls of the flat and graffitied playgrounds. Steel girders emphasise the rusty bleakness of Industrial Manchester. The programme notes feature a letter from Delaney to Joan Littlewood, detailing a hastily written first draft of the play. What is evident, having the playwright’s words in mind, is that Delaney has taken the truth of her life and social surroundings and placed it on stage. While she isn’t the first to have shined the spotlight on working class communities, the female perspective she brings to the genre is refreshing, even to a 21st Century audience. Delaney’s characters, particularly mother and daughter, Helen (Jodie Prenger) and Jo (Gemma Dobson), partake in trail-blazingly frank exchanges, revealing both the liberties and constraints faced by women in the 1950’s and tackling universal topics such as wealth, independence, relationships, careers and motherhood. The dialogue is wonderfully witty yet poignant, and Delaney forges a unique rhythm in her prosaic and earthy poetry that is a delight to listen to.

The performances are stellar all-round. Stuart Thompson is a warm and utterly endearing presence as Jo’s best friend Geoff, while Tom Varey excels at portraying the occasionally surreal menace of Helen’s husband, Peter. But the show belongs to Prenger and Dobson; as a double act their chemistry is electric and their timing impeccable. Dobson’s Jo is sullen and temperamental, genuinely hilarious, and displays flashes of childlike glee and dryly incongruous wisdom (‘we don’t ask for life, we have it thrust upon us!’). Having mainly known Prenger for her stints as brassy leading ladies in musical theatre, her performance here was a knockout revelation. Prenger brings all the weight and weariness of Helen’s trespasses, while dosing her droll and often scathing remarks about her daughter with a pathos that hangs in the atmosphere. She’s not a likeable character, but played by Prenger, Helen is a fully rounded character that is not without sympathy.

Sheibani’s production is entertaining without being flashy, showcasing Delaney’s text in all its humour, honesty and melancholia. Outstanding performances and an evocative design placed my thoughts and emotions directly with the characters on stage. I was invested in their lives, and it was with a heavy heart that I had to leave them behind, so engrossing was the play. A keystone in feminist theatre, having now seen A Taste of Honey I can see just why Delaney is so lauded for her work.

A Taste of Honey plays at Curve, Leicester until 26th October as part of a UK tour. It transfers to the Trafalgar Studios in December.
Gemma Dobson, Tom Varey and Jodie Prenger in A Taste of Honey.
Credit: Marc Brenner.

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