A Taste of Honey
by Shelagh Delaney
Directed by Bijan Sheibani
Lyttelton Theatre at the National Theatre
Saturday 1st March 2014, matinee
Lesley Sharp as Helen (the mother)
Kate O’Flynn as Jo (the daughter)
Dean Lennox Kelley as Peter (Helen’s boyfriend)
Eric Koki Abfrefa as Jimmie, (the black sailor)
Harry Hepple as Geoffrey (Jo’s gay artist friend)
Set in: 1958, Salford
There are standard points every review of A Taste of Honey has to mention, so let’s get them out of the way first. If you’ve read any other review, skip this list.
- The plot, characters and Salford setting inspired Tony Warren to write Coronation Street, still running after 55 years. Yes, Elsie Tanner started here.
- Shelagh Delaney was 19 when she wrote it. She was never to achieve such success again, though she did maintain a long writing career, detailed in the programme.
- The Tony Richardson film in 1961 starred Rita Tushingham, Dora Bryan and Robert Stephens, and it is unlikely that any later production will match it, because it is of the era as well as defining the era.
- Morrissey says 50% of his inspiration for lyrics with the Smiths came from Shelagh Delaney. Her image appears on two Smiths’ record covers.
- Delaney saw a Terrence Rattigan play, Variations On A Theme, (rightly) thought it false, and decided she could do better. The programme notes (new to me) that Waiting For Godot was another “I could do better than that” inspiration.
- The song A Taste of Honey, which is not used, was written as an instrumental theme for the 1961 film, then vocal versions appeared, which The Beatles covered.
- Where would Alan Bennett be without the inspiration of Shelagh Delaney?
The Sunday Times review by Christopher Hart, a week before we saw it gave it two stars, suggesting that the plot with teenage pregnancy, black father, gay friend was no longer controversial or noteworthy. It is indeed merely something that happens twice a week in the tamer episodes of Coronation Street or the mildest of Eastenders. Or as Mr Hart puts it, Its biggest influence was surely on television soap operas about lower class people (sic) shouting at each other. The Daily Express agreed. That was depressing as we had tickets. Fortunately the Guardian and Observer were more generous.
It is of 1958. You have to encompass the mind-set. In its day it was laden with controversy because the guy who impregnates Jo is black. Fast forward to 2014 and this production, and a black dad shouldn’t upset anyone (i.e. anyone normal) but the fact that Jo is wearing a school gymslip and socks is unquestionably offensive in 2014. Times change. Being black? Not an issue. Exploiting a sexy schoolgirl in uniform? GO TO JAIL. DO NOT PASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT £200 as the Monopoly board has it. We’re in a post-Jimmy Saville reality. Is the gymslip and school socks a knowing directorial nod? Think about Twinky with Susan George cycling along in white socks to meet porn-writer Charles Bronson. Think Lolita. Twinky was even re-named Lola in the USA in case anyone failed to get the connection. It’s definitely pervy, Bronson looks embarrassed, as he should, while Susan George plays the 16 year old with pre-teen nail-biting etc. Think the song Good Morning Little Schoolgirl. This stuff is no longer acceptable but maybe it can act as an equivalent to the shock value of the racist and homophobic assumptions of 1958.
Wiki and my theatre references say Jo is a seventeen year old schoolgirl. Not so, surely? She’s leaving school at Christmas, at the end of term. In 1958, people left school at the end of the term following their 15th birthday at secondary moderns (the age was raised to 16 in 1964), unless they were studying for GCE O levels, which most weren’t, only the top stream, who would leave at 16, but the GCE stream would also complete the school year to July. If she was 17 then, she would already be on a GCE A level course, or at the most re-sitting O levels (highly unlikely) but O level re-sits were early February. So, if she is leaving school at Christmas she is either about to turn 15, or has turned 15 since September. This is how she looks here too. A tiny costume note: around us light grey uniforms, as she wears in the play, marked private schools, with nearly all state girls schools favouring navy blue. I recall the arguments when a new local school chose dark green, meaning specialist suppliers had to be used.
What about Jimmie, the black dad? There were two rows of Afro-Caribbean students making notes in front of us. The end, where Helen is appalled to discover the baby will be black, is embarrassing. The continuing gales of laughter from people behind us as Helen made more and more racist comments were offensive to us in the circumstances (she says being black the baby will have to go on the stage), but the play is supposed to embarrass you.
Reviews mention that the gay friend, Geoff, was very 2014, and cool, and so obviously pleasant and sincere, that it makes Peter and Helen’s screaming homophobia calling him a ‘pansified freak’ hard to comprehend. The way he plays it, most people would have assumed that he was simply her boyfriend, though maybe in the North in 1958, a man making coffee and tidying up may have been considered a sure sign, equivalent to ordering a half pint of beer instead of a manly pint. A half pint meant you were either gay or a Southerner, though the two were automatically equated. But again attitudes have changed: homosexuality was illegal in 1958. How was the part played in 1958? Was it camped up? But surely Delaney intends him as the most positive person in the play, so I doubt that it should be taken to extremes.
Helen and Peter
Some criticism I read was unfair. Simon Edge in The Daily Express was annoyed that when Geoff tried to kiss her, she says she doesn’t like all that panting and grunting, and that he hadn’t been panting and grunting. That’s the point. It’s ironic … she is pointing out that he doesn’t fancy her that way. A different review said when she says she’s going to throw herself out of the window we can see it’s only a 3 foot drop. That’s because it’s a theatre. The room is suspended within the large set of a street, and we can see part of the room above and the rafters below. They start walking upstairs on the revolving set. I had no problem with seeing it as “upstairs.”
Reviews also keep picking out the 1961 film as superior, and I tended to that view, which is easy when you last saw the film several years ago, when the Sunday Telegraph gave it away as a free cover mount DVD. It was scripted by Shelagh Delaney and Tony Richardson. It’s very good, but it is a major step away from the play. A director can’t resist smoky gritty shots of Jo walking beside the Manchester Ship Canal, relevant or not. In Anger and After John Russell Taylor took the opposite view on comparative merit. He praises the dreamlike way in which Jo is the centre of the play. She gets on with whatever happens, not raging against any of it. People drift in and drift out of her life. For Taylor, the film version with its trips to Blackpool, netball match, school and work scenes and fleshing out of the meetings with Jimmie, Peter and Geoffrey, loses the centrality of the confined room and its dreamlike nature. Taylor says:
The (film) treatment is uncompromisingly realistic and exterior, and consequently the script-writers find themselves trapped into devoting an excessive amount of time to useless illustration and explanation … the special quality the play has of just letting things happen, one after the other (as in a dream) disappears, and modifications clearly intended to strengthen the material succeed, paradoxically, only in making it seem thinner and more contrived. (Anger and After, 1963, revised 1966)
The film poster
Taylor also saw the original typescript submitted to Joan Littlewood and notes the changes in plot but notes that most of the best dialogue was intact in the first draft. While it sounds real, the text is careful over grammar: I noticed Helen says ‘regularly’ a few times where most people in her environment would have said ‘regular’ for the adverb. There’s no effing and blinding either,
How good is the play? It is a seminal work of British theatre, which is why a National Theatre should be examining it, and Delaney was five remarkable things for a playwright then: female, working class, not university-educated, under twenty and Northern. While wildly superior to John Osborne (who I consider one of Britain’s worst playwrights), and while Delaney can write dialogue, memorable lines and quips, it is a dated play. The lack of pace and ponderously didactic progress through the plot actually remind me of Rattigan: Delaney’s “anti-inspiration.” I’m glad I’ve seen it produced with such superb acting, though I question whether the very large Lyttelton Theatre was the right venue when the active part of the set, the room itself, could be done in a smaller space or studio, and the play would benefit from a tighter more intimate space. But it was full to bursting on a Saturday afternoon, and I am attuned to the buzz of a happy audience going out afterwards. This had it.
Excellent essays. The cover image (and poster) is striking. However, in the play Helen has tightly permed blonde curls, by no means the first time a cover image, done before rehearsals had started, or costumes designed, does not marry up to the play. I think her perm this Saturday afternoon was a lot tighter than the photos above too.