Outside Jo’s window the streets of Salford are noisy, filthy children playing and shouting and never going to school. She does not fault them. She blames their parents—seeing a mirrored image of her own childhood and neglectful mother.
In A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney’s Jo is chockablock with contradictory tensions. She’s is open-hearted and shut down. Honest and deceptive. Bitingly sarcastic and sweetly sentimental. She is an abandoned teen and an extraordinary young woman and she has no guidance at being either. She makes it all up as she goes along.
The passage of time since the play’s premiere in 1959 has not dulled the impact of such a woman who speaks her mind and refuses to apologise for who she is. The play may have the occasional dated reference but the issues and urgent voices within it remain vital and moving. However, Austin Pendleton’s uneven production does not offer the best showcase for this work.
At 17, Jo’s (Rebekah Brockman) whole life has been a series of grubby flats and different schools as her flighty mother, Helen (Rachel Botchan), keeps them in perpetual motion. Now they’ve somehow come to the worst of all the tenement neighborhoods in industrial Salford—with a view of the slaughterhouse and the omnipresent street kids. Helen is fleeing some boyfriend or another and Jo is left in the wake of this romantic destruction. The two scratch and hiss at each other to such a degree that they make Grey Garden’s Big Edie and Little Edie look functional. Helen’s latest paramour, Peter (Bradford Cover) wants to marry Helen and again Jo is forgotten. On her own, Jo tries to create a construct of domestic bliss with her friend Geoff (John Evans Reese).
A Taste of Honey delves into what happens to a child long denied love. Love is such a foreign concept to Jo she would not know what to do with it even if she had it. She wants so much but whether she can articulate or achieve those wants remains to be seen.
Instead, the vitality of her desires comes in crashing conflict with everything around her—her narcissistic mother, her mother’s seedy boyfriend, and her doting friend Geoff. But more importantly there is a battle royal within herself—oscillating between accepting but more often than not rejecting care and love. Having lived with a tyrannical mother she sees control and possession in other people’s affections for her. She can be warmly adoring one moment and then lash out with fury the next. She is living and dying in every moment of her life. It’s what makes her a fascinating character nearly 60 years after she was created.
But it also presents a challenge for any performer and director to harness this character and turn these delightfully tangled contradictions into poetry in performance. In this production, there’s a self-consciousness to the performances that holds them back. Broad characters loom larger than crafted relationships. Botchan delivers the bawdy vivaciousness of Helen but she and Brockman do not quite capture the love-hate/need-resentment between mother and daughter. However, Brockman and Reese do convey pangs of tenderness and cruelty as Jo and Geoff. That relationship remains the most carefully executed in this production–making the second act stronger than the first.
The play requires music as a backdrop and songs are also dropped into the conversational patter. The original production had a jazz trio on stage and Pendleton uses one as well. But their odd placement does not create a musical hall atmosphere. They mostly sit on the sofa in Jo’s living room like confused beatniks who have lost their way home. When Helen relentlessly flirts with them, their presence makes sense (she revels in a male audience). Otherwise their effect is neutral to distracting. For the most part, they are inert and watching them watch the action adds little. Or there’s a lot of shuffling along the sofa to make room for characters amidst the musicians as they are sometimes visible to the characters and sometimes not.
For this gambit to work, the staging needs to float in a woozy magical-musical space between dreamy and corporeal. Rather, the production trades in concrete kitchen-sink realism awkwardly pressed up against this musical fantasy with no lighting, sound, or scenic design to help us bridge the stylistic gap.
Nevertheless, Delaney’s audacious writing still thrills. This rare revival offers an opportunity for the voices of these complicated women in messy relationships with each other and the world to, at long last, be heard.
A Taste of Honey has been extended to run until 30th October, at the Pearl Theatre. For more information, click here.