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A Taste of Honey

It was 1958. The Second World War was behind us. The Fifties was a period which included the masterwork of Arthur Miller “The Crucible“ and the avant garde “Separate Tables“ by the then fashionable Terence Rattigan...

Published on April 21st 2006.

A Taste of Honey


It was 1958. The Second World War was behind us.The Fifties was a period which included the masterwork of Arthur Miller “The Crucible“ and the avant garde “Separate Tables“ by the then fashionable Terence Rattigan. They led to the birth of London’s Angry Young Men and in particular “Look Back in Anger“ by John Osborne. It was a turning point in 20th century drama.

In the midst of that a 19 year old Salford girl called Shelagh Delaney wrote this play, because as she told the Daily Telegraph after seeing “Variations on a Theme“ by Rattigan she “knew“ she could do better.

In many ways she was angry. She wrote this play in 10 days, a daunting virtuoso display, but in other respects she was totally different from her many, mainly male, contemporaries. Ms Delaney was another animal. She knew what angered her living amidst the industrial dereliction of the Salford that was. Her venom and anger were directed and specific.

With “Separate Tables“ still gracing the Royal Exchange there is currently a wonderful opportunity for Mancunians to see this crossover time in English theatre, (as portrayed by these two plays) for themselves. A period when Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine, Dickie Valentine and so many others gave way to Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Little Richard, Bill Haley etc.

1958, when the divorce rate was less than 1%, when the black community hardly resonated in the UK, when single parents were the tiniest minority of the population and living together prior to marriage was a mortal sin. Almost as bad as showing Elvis’s hips on primetime television. Life in Britain 50 years ago was dark ages stuff. This play was gritty, full of dark brooding humour and controversial in the extreme. The Wolfenden Report recommending the legalisation of male homosexuality had just been published. This was a grim time to live in this depressing Northern environment, nowhere better exemplified than in Salford’s crumbling industrial revolution façade.

48 years after Joan Littlewood’s iconic version of this play at the Theatre Workshop in Stratford East, London, the Oldham Coliseum stages a revival.

The Story is simple, a teenage girl, her dysfunctional mother, an alcoholic stepfather, a black sailor who impregnates her and the helpful gay art student are all everyday participants in this tale of deprived northern city folk. It was the stereotype for any and every major urban conurbation. Directed and specific in its anger. Ms Delaney targets 5 variegated people to express her emotions. The ending is ambiguous.

This production failed to move or involve me. The rawness, the grittiness and the sheer misery of Salford and the people living there, so well highlighted in the play, were just not re – created.

Once the infrastructure has failed to involve its audience, the poignancy and anger so apparent in the writing dissipates almost entirely. Neither emotion nor passion came across and instead of involvement one was simply a spectator. The happenings on stage fail completely to provoke the expected emotional response.

Oddly, for so local a play, I felt insufficient research into Norhern deprivation and living conditions destroyed much of its premise before it even got going. The Cast seemed lost in trying to portray the very magnitude of Ms Delaney’s anger . Nothing in their demeanours conveyed the fundamental cry of despair, so much a part of the action. This Play particularly, needs more than acting, it needs emotional commitment. I failed to see or feel this.

I felt realism disappeared, to be replaced by acting without feeling for the time and place. In no area did I think this staging rose above the competent and in some important particulars was less than ordinary.

This is an important landmark piece of writing. 48 years later it seemed tired, dated and irrelevant.

Richard Burbage
Email Me Now! April 2006

At the Oldham Coliseum until the 13th May. Box Office 0161 624 2829

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