Lesley Sharp as Helen and Kate O'Flynn as Josephine Photo: Alastair Muir
Reviewed by James Karas
In the closing scene of A Taste of Honey, Helen, one of the main characters finds out that her teenage daughter Jo (Kate O’Flynn) is about to give birth to a black child. “You mean to say that…that sailor was a black man? ...Oh my God! Nothing else can happen to me now.” As her daughter is going into labour, Helen goes out for a drink.
This is the ultimate indicator of this woman’s character. She is a shallow, selfish, crude, promiscuous and pathetic “semi-whore” as her creator calls her, and a slice of life that one would just as soon not taste.
Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play is now playing on the Lyttleton stage of the National Theatre, London. Helen (Lesley Sharp) and her daughter Josephine (Jo) live in a rundown part of Manchester. The play is classic kitchen-sink realism where there is economic poverty but more importantly poverty of mind and spirit. If the fate of the characters is intended to infuriate you, the play succeeds marvelously.
Jo shows some artistic talent but there is no opportunity to develop any ability that she may have in the squalid life dictated by her mother’s character. Helen brings Peter (Dean Lennox Kelly) to the apartment; a rich young man who seems to be as crude, dirty minded and heavy drinking as her.
The pathetic teenager meets Jimmie (Eric Kofi Abrefa), a black sailor who promises to marry her and leaves her pregnant. Jo then meets Geof (Harry Hepple) a tall and decent homosexual who is genuinely caring.
A black man getting a teenager pregnant, a mother making a living from sex, a decent gay man when homosexuality was still a crime – all of this was pushing the envelope very far in the 1950s. We are no longer shocked by the relationships but the way of life of the two women is no less depressing.
Sharp is so good in the role that she infuriated me to the point where I wanted to metaphorically strangle her. O’Flynn as Jo is equally convincing as the pathetic teenager caught up in her mother’s squalid life. Kelly, Abrefa and Hepple handle their roles well.
Designer Hildegard Bechtler has designed a stage showing the streetscape at first and then revolving to reveal the squalid apartment with the gas works in the background. Very effective.
For all its depressing and infuriating effectiveness, the production did seem to drag a bit during the first act. I think the issue was with the pacing imposed by director Bijan Sheibani. Some more energy could and should have been infused in the performances to move the action. An inordinate number of the audience heading out for the intermission displayed or suppressed yawns.
Aside from that, it was a pleasure to see a play that made its mark when Delaney was only 18 years old and was able to paint such a realistic and depressing view of reality.
A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney continues in repertory until May 11, 2014 at the Lyttleton Stage, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/