Shelagh Delaney famously wrote A Taste of Honey in 1956, over a period of two weeks at the age of 18, and the play still stands up; the dialogue is very well observed and she raises some important social issues. Part of the ‘kitchen sink’ tradition, written in the same year as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, it’s part of a wave of plays depicting working class life that emerged as a reaction to the middle class ‘drawing room’ comedies prevalent on the 1950s London stage.
The play’s historical and canonical position is clear. What is more difficult to understand is why the play is being resurrected here and now and for whom precisely it is being resurrected. The accents locate the play in the North West of England, where it was originally set and the costumes are from the 1950s. Tony Cownie’s production seems content to present Delaney’s play as an artefact, a thing to be admired from afar, rather than a living piece of theatre for a contemporary audience.
The two main performances are strong. But while Lucy Black and Rebecca Ryan, playing Salford mother and daughter, Helen and Jo, do a very good job of exploring the individual emotional journeys of their characters, there seems to be very little connection between them. Helen and Jo are complex characters, with desires and fears, but their love interests are cartoonish figures at best. The sexuality of the male characters comes across as grubby, dissipating much of the potential for empathy with them. There seems to be a failure to weave together the emotional trajectories of the various characters and there is little sense of tension as a result.
What was once seen as radical, a departure from the theatrical trends of the day, has long since become part of the canon; watching it, I am left thinking not of Delaney’s extraordinary achievement but of the sad unlikelihood of a new play by a working class 18-year-old girl being produced here and now. In resurrecting a play that caused a stir 50 years ago with its freshness and vitality without replicating that freshness and vitality this production contributes to precisely the kind of anachronistic theatrical culture that stifles the kind of innovation it celebrates.