Coming in the wake of Shelagh Delaney’s death last year, Polly Findley’s revival of the Salford native’s most famous play couldn’t be more timely. When A Taste of Honey was first performed back in 1958 it became an instant hit, propelling the unknown Northern author into the limelight, and heralding a new breed of strong female working-class voices, in a time of a great sea-change in British Theatre.
A Taste of Honey centres on Jo, a feisty young working-class teenager living with her ambivalent mother Helen in 1950s Salford. They live together in a disreputable part of town; Helen constantly looking for a way out of the drudgery she finds herself in. When she decides to marry wealthy young Peter, her daughter is left to her own devices in the flat. At the same time, Jo embarks on a relationship with black sailor, Jimmy. When he returns to sea the now pregnant Jo moves in with homosexual acquaintance Geoffrey, who assumes the role of surrogate father to her unborn child. However, her domestic routine is brought into doubt when Helen returns.
Polly Findlay’s production retains the on-stage jazz trio employed in the original production by Joan Littlewood. They not only provide musical interludes during the revolving set changes, but also serenade the audience before the curtain rises. The set design is impressive and fully utilised throughout the production; the revolving stage allowing for changes in perspective.
The main difficulty the revival of A Taste of Honey faces is that many of the issues it tackles such as race, poverty, sexual orientation and class may have been revolutionary at the time, but do not have the same resonance in contemporary theatre. It behoves the audience to enter the mindset of ‘50’s Northern Britain in order to fully appreciate the power of the writing. If you’re prepared to do this then you will be rewarded by a gritty, darkly humorous, eloquent and moving kitchen-sink drama. Whilst the situations Jo and Helen both find themselves in are desperate, there is no sense of despair. Instead there is a gritty acceptance and determination to just get on with it.
Katie West is brilliant as Jo, a girl trying to find her place in the world whilst struggling to come to terms with the love/hate relationship she has with her mother. Whilst gamely struggling for her own independence, Jo finds herself unwittingly making the same mistakes as her mother. However, she is not one of life’s victims; she’s merely trying to make the best of the hand dealt to her. It would have been easy for Delaney’s play to slip into melodrama, but A Taste of Honey is not a political play in the sense of looking for a villain, but a portrayal of growing up in Northern Britain in an era of great change.
The casting and acting is strong all-round; everyone neatly fits into the roles allotted to them and performs their parts admirably. After an initial period of adjustment, you find yourself watching the drama unfold as an observer looking in; sucked into the turmoil of ‘50s life.
A Taste of Honey continues at the Crucible until 17th November