20 February 2014

A Taste of Honey – National Theatre, Monday 10th February 2014


Jo is an awkward, shy 17-year-old girl living with her promiscuous alcoholic mother, Helen. Desperately longing to simply be loved, when her mother's latest "romance" drives Jo out of their apartment, she spends the night with a black sailor on a brief shore leave. But when Jo's mother abandons her to move in with her latest lover, Jo finds a job and a room for herself, meets Geoffrey, a shy and lonely homosexual, and allows him to share her flat. When she discovers that she is pregnant with the sailor's child, Geoffrey, grateful for her friendship, looks after her, even offering marriage. Their brief taste of happiness is short-lived for Jo's fickle and domineering mother, her own romantic hopes dashed, appears back on the scene, determined to drive the gentle Geoffrey from the flat and take over the care of her daughter 

Helen: Lesley Sharp
Josephine, her daughter – Kate O’Flynn
Peter, her friend – Dean Lennox Kelly
Jimmie, a black sailor – Eric Kofi Abrefa
Geoffrey, a student – Harry Hepple

 Creative Team:
Written by: Shelagh Delaney
Director: Bijan Sheibani
Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting: Paul Anderson

 My only reference point for this play up until now had been an old Victoria Wood sketch, in which she bemoans the lack of sex education she got at school – “I thought you could get pregnant walking along the canal while someone played the harmonica, like Rita Tushingham in that film A Taste of Honey”. So I more or less knew it was going to be an “Its grim oop North” kind of play. I’ve still not seen the film – although a lot of the audience obviously had and were therefore purposes of comparison, rather than taking the play on its own merits. I heard a couple of several slightly sniffy comments at the end along the lines of “Well, its not as good as the film”. Well, I’ve got news for them. You have to take a play like this on its own merits, rather than compare it with what it spawned. To compare the play with a film based on it is like, well, comparing a mother and daughter. Yes, they have obvious similarities, but you cannot say that one is better than the other when they are completely different media. And you surely have to look at the play in the light of the fact that it was written by a 17 year old girl from Salford who was taken to the theatre for the first time in her life to see a dreary play by Terence Rattigan and went home afterwards thinking “I can do better than that”. Which she proceeded to do, presumably not yet knowing her upstage right from her downstage left. And which by all accounts was a massive, massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic. I bet Rita Tushingham never managed that. Granted that Delaney was effectively cursed by the play and barely wrote anything of note for the rest of her life, but ask your average 17 year old to write a play and I bet you won’t get anything like this. (In fact, ask your average 17 year old to write a play and they will probably stare blankly at you and ask you what a play is, and is it something to do with Spotify?) Its not Hamlet, but come on….

Actually, in some respects, its better than Hamlet, because its written with an ear towards the truth. I bet all the characters were based on people that Delaney knew or had seen or had overheard talking on the bus – and Hamlet has fewer laughs. Because although this is, on the face of it, a fairly grim couple of hours, its actually quite heartwarming. We know that, despite her awful mother’s reappearance at the end in order to wrest back control of things, Josephine is going to come through it more or less the winner. Her baby is going to be loved and cared for, and will probably have a better life than Josephine. 

The evening fairly crackles along, mainly thanks to Lesley Sharp’s Helen, who keeps the dialogue coming at a frenetic pace. She plays Helen without asking for a shred of sympathy, which is lucky because the woman is a peroxide monster, selfish, thoughtless and deluded – as my grandma would have said (and often apparently did) “All fur coat and no knickers”, and probably also “Net curtains in the window, nowt on the table”. Kate O’Flynn pulls off the role of Josephine triumphantly – all those Daily Telegraph readers who comment online on articles about the theatre that “those luvvies should go and get a proper job” should think themselves lucky that they don’t have to play this role 8 times a week. Harry Hepple does a nice job with the role of Geoffrey, which could potentially be one of the most stomach-churningly camp roles in theatre, but here its quiet and restrained. 

Him Indoors always chunters about “communistic bowing” (which basically means all the cast coming on to take one communal bow rather than taking individual ones) and generally I nod and say “Yes, dear” sympathetically but I’m with him on this one. Two of the characters are only on stage for, say, maximum 10 – 15 minutes (if that) and O’Flynn is on all the time, with Sharpe not far behind her. Hepple is on for the entire second act. And yet all five cast members get to take a communal bow. That’s not right. The two minor characters should take the first bow, Hepple next, and then the two women together at the end. That’s the only way that the audience can show their appreciation of the fact that these two women have just done the theatrical equivalent of scaling, if not Everest, then at least Ben Nevis.

There is a wonderful, artful and very telling moment when, almost at the end of the play, Lesley Sharp’s character breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, asking them “What would you do?” – and then the moment is gone and the play continues. Well, its an interesting question, and our answers today would be very different from the answers that an audience would have given back in 1958. Things were different then – and not only in real life. Theatre was different too – unmarried mothers, teenage pregnancy, infidelity and poverty didn’t appear on stage until the “Angry Young Men” started writing “Kitchen Sink Drama”. Which is pretty rich as it was the Angry Young Women who were chained to that sink until Delaney came along, scooped up the bowl full of dirty dishwater and poured it all over the stage in a wonder act of rebellion.

The set is very evocative, although a little disturbing – what on earth has been going on in the room upstairs? And can someone more enlightened explain the title of the play to me? What exactly is the honey that has been tasted? Is it sex? Freedom? Self knowledge? Something to do with a harmonica and Rita Tushingham?

What the critics thought:
(and if anyone can tell me why my links no longer paste in as actual clickable links, I would be very grateful!)






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