Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey is arguably the mother of all kitchen sink dramas. The 1958 hit was followed by productions on the West End and in New York, as well as a film adaptation, and all within three years of the 19 year old writing the then taboo play. The fact that director Mark Baybach wanted to focus on the real Northern voices at play, rather than the shock value, was a wise choice. Special recognition should also go to set designer Hayley Grindle: the wonderfully sparse bedsit, alongside the imposing industrial metal structures and junk-strewn alleyways, really reflected upon the northern dives present in the 50s and 60s. These are the areas of 50s Britain that are so often overlooked, and this production seeks them out in the interrogative glare of the stage lights.
The set and music choices throughout really lent to the immersive 50s atmosphere, the music in particular acting as a form of escapism for the characters who have found themselves trapped in their inescapable social situations (a loveless marriage, a drinking problem, an interracial teenage pregnancy, absent fathers and homosexual slurs). The live band, made up of three members of the cast (James Weaver, Lekan Lawal, and Christopher Hancock) was a delightful touch to creating a lived in atmosphere. Personally I felt the inclusion of songs between all scenes was a little too frequent, and unfortunately jarred the pacing of the drama on a few occasions.
The cast worked well together, though it was difficult to detect the chemistry between Jo (Rebecca Ryan) and Jimmie (Lawal). Their relationship, whilst understandably short-lived on the stage, was somewhat stilted for a truly believable first love affair. My main criticism throughout the first act, as the second act seemed to resort to it less, was the combination of comedy and drama with no real cut-off point between the two genres. Though it was a bold move, it confused the tone of the play considerably. I felt some of the jokes would have fared better from being treated as throw-away lines, rather than pointed and jabbed at. Whilst Julie Riley’s Helen was truly detestable later in the play, her constant joking was almost pantomimesque, and didn’t feel at home with the context of the drama. She was far more believable, and more satisfying to watch, as the two-faced uncaring mother. The inclusion of Helen beating Peter (Weaver) in the street foreshadowed just how brutal she could be with her own daughter, eliciting audible gasps from the audience when she turns Geoff (Hancock) out of the house.
Christopher Hancock stood out with his portrayal of Jo’s homosexual housemate, Geoff. The relationship between Geoff and Jo was truly heartfelt, and made their conflict all the more uncomfortable to watch. I also was impressed by how sensitive a portrayal of homosexuality he gave to the role, especially considering the volatile atmosphere in which Geoff was living.
Whilst the content of the play has long since lost its controversial edge, this production admirably sought to highlight the constant search for something better. The final sequence, in which Jo goes into labour alone and in her horrible sham of a flat, was fantastic. The silhouettes of the cast walking on one by one created some brilliant imagery to encapsulate how alone each of the characters suffers in the pursuit of happiness. Delaney’s “issues” have ceased to affect us, but the people afflicted by these issues strike a chord which resonates through this window into Northern life in the 50s. 3/5
Review written by Louise Jones.
A Taste of Honey is currently showing at York Theatre Royal until Saturday 12th July. For more information on the production, visit here…
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