For difficult-to-shock theatregoers in 2014, it can be tough to see why Shelagh Delaney’s début play caused such a fuss at it’s première in 1958. To our not-so-delicate sensibilities, it comes across as no different to an episode of Coronation Street (arguably inspired by Delaney’s play), with its simple plot about a single mother and her seventeen year-old daughter. Even though A Taste Of Honey may not have the same social importance now as it did then, with its presentation of working-class women and young gay men, Bijan Sheibani’s carefully observed and tender production still makes a case for the play as one of the key works of post-war theatre, with its honest humanity and fiery heart.
This revival often departs from what we might describe as a gritty, kitchen-sink depiction of the lives of Helen and Jo, with Hildegard Bechtler’s vast and uninviting set straddling the stage uneasily, the house poised somewhat menacingly apart from the surrounding terraces and gasworks. Where we might expect pinpoint naturalism from the performers, we instead veer into caricature, with endearingly silly dance routines breaking up the action. It takes a while to get used to, but ultimately allows the play to take on greater significance and situates us all as performers in our everyday lives.
Sheibani shows us a world of conflict in minutiae, with class, race and gender divides being allowed to tear relationships apart. Most important, however, is the way in which different generations relate to and react to one another. Initially, Helen and Jo seem to be a world apart from one another, leaving vast amounts of space between one another literally and metaphorically. Before the evening is out, towards the end of Jo’s pregnancy, they have unintentionally closed in, trapping one another in a cross-generational embrace. What is heartbreaking at the show’s emotional climax is not their distance from one another but their torturous closeness.
Delaney’s poetic evocation of normalcy rises out of the damp and mould of her protagonists’ house, with gorgeously crafted sound-bites generating an air of the extraordinary amongst the ordinary. Phrases such as Peter smoking like “a horizontal chimney” and a tissue being “nearly clean” thus come across as hauntingly beautiful in the staid and unchanging landscape. Expressions like “Dream of me” and “Young girl’s got to eat” speak of Jo’s desire to be more of an adult, repeating what we suspect are favourite sayings of her mother. Against the simplicity of the setting and the narrative, Delaney’s language gets a chance to shine.
Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn as the mother and daughter pairing are what gives this production its life, however. The former is initially uneasy on her feet and staggers around the messy and vacant flat even as she barks and cackles orders at her daughter, but finds her balance with the introduction of Peter. O’Flynn, in contrast, is gangly but steady, with a seeming sense of purpose and maturity even though she is, essentially, in a state of arrested development. Her knowing youth and Sharp’s ignorant wisdom constantly clash, turning them into islands unto themselves, just like the house in which they live.
Against these two strong women, then, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the men in the play appear slightly underwritten and underplayed; Harry Hepple is an awkward but distant Geoffrey, and though Dean Lennoz Kelly is a hugely entertaining as the drunk Peter, it’s difficult to see any of the charm that makes Helen fall for him. Eric Kofi Abrefa offers a touching lifeline for Jo, but his softness dampens the quiet passion the couple feel for one another. The irony of my saying this, of course, is that much of our theatre is still filled with underwritten and underplayed women, so Delaney’s subversion of the norm is not necessarily to be sniffed at.
Sometimes, it feels that Sheibani’s production could do with a few bigger theatrical flourishes, for though Paul Anderson’s lighting and Paul Englishby’s sound give an air of something beyond this space, it sometimes feels hermetically sealed off from a wider world, both in reality and in the abstract. Nonetheless, this is a production which demonstrates the inexorable movement of time and its affect on parent-child relationships, which moves from the comic to the tragic with lighting speed; this is A Taste Of Honey for anyone who has ever had, or has ever been, a child.