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A Taste of Honey

Philip Hamer celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Shelagh Delaney's Salford classic – and talks to the director of its forthcoming Royal Exchange revival

Published on November 12th 2008.


A Taste of Honey

In 1958, 19-year-old former Salford Grammar schoolgirl Shelagh Delaney sent a play called A Taste of Honey to the pioneering theatre director Joan Littlewood. In her autobiography Littlewood recalled the accompanying letter in which Delaney explained that her first visit to the theatre, the Manchester Opera House, had inspired her to write it. She said it took her just two weeks.

Under Littlewood's guidance, the play was performed at London's Wyndhams Theatre. And within a few years, a remarkable film directed by Tony Richardson appeared.

As Littlewood herself observed, there was not much of a plot: 40-year-old Helen goes off with her roguish boyfriend, leaving her 16-year-old daughter, Jo, to spend Christmas alone. Jo goes to bed with a young Nigerian sailor who soon disappears. Some months later, Geoff, an effeminate art student, moves in, sleeps on the couch and takes care of the girl who is now pregnant.

The entire action is set in a grim tenement block in 1950s Salford and the characters, vividly drawn, speak in the raw local vernacular. They swear, argue and are in perpetual conflict. Sentiment never pervades. A vibrant wit also runs through the play and at its core is the agonisingly ambivalent relationship between mother and daughter.

As for its devastating impact on British theatre, it was as if a pushy Northerner had roared through the French windows of a cosy 'Anyone for tennis?' scene, shattering the glass with their howl.

Shelagh Delaney said that she resented the way that working class characters depicted in theatre were often seen as peripheral to the main action “quaintly doffing their caps”. Arguably, her theatrical début put an end to this.

The play is also unique in that it expresses a female perspective at a time when the British dramaturgy was utterly male dominated. Through the character of Helen, it gives voice to a flawed working-class woman whose contradictory character would be unknown to most comfortable, middle-class theatregoers in 1950s Britain.

Though she wrote several other plays and screenplays, Delaney never repeated the success that greeted her début. Now 69 she has recently been ill and declined to be involved in any publicity surrounding the play’s fifitieth anniversary. She did send a letter of encouragement however to those involved in the new production.

A Taste of Honey is directed by 30-year-old Jo Combes who impressed with another revival at the Royal Exchange, Roots, earlier this year.

Combes, a Southerner from Maidstone, says that she feels privileged to be staging this new production:

“This play seems to belong to the people of Salford. Whenever I tell anyone from Salford I’m involved with this, they claim ownership. No one despairs in this play as far as I’m concerned and it’s this positive side of the play that I’ll be concentrating on. I’m after the 'Salford swagger' if you like, an attitude of mind that’s unique to that area.”

She has mined another Salford drama tradition; the TV soap Coronation Street, which started broadcasting just two years after the play first appeared, by casting Sally Lindsay as Helen.

“Without A Taste of Honey there would be no Coronation Street,” Combes says confidently. “If you look at those early, grim black and white episodes of that programme, you can see almost a mirror image of the play.”

The play is often seen as belonging to the tradition of realistic, naturalistic 'kitchen sink' theatre, but Combes prefers to see it as more representative of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop approach to drama. This had its roots in post-war Manchester where Littlewood had been briefly married to another Salfordian, the folk singer and political activist Ewan MacColl who penned the song 'Dirty Old Town'.

It's with the Theatre Workshop in mind that Combes decided to integrate the last 50 years of Manchester/Salford music into the play. She will be using local DJ Jon Winstanley on stage throughout the production.

“This is all part of the way I see the play as something fresh and exciting and not a museum piece. There is a restless energy at work that fascinates me. Much in the play also seems dream-like and I shall be suggesting this. It’s the relationship between Helen and Jo which really fascinates though, and Delaney’s concern that the daughter will make the same mistakes with her life that her mother has done, and her mother’s attempts to prevent this.”

,p>Despite her resolution to reflect Delaney’s absence of complete despair, Combes is convinced that at the play’s close, Jo is the only truly desperate one. She has given birth and has nowhere to go.

“This is Shelagh Delaney highlighting the lack of opportunities in life for girls like Jo, their lives utterly changed at a young age. It was something that she obviously felt passionate about.”

To a query about why Delaney never achieved the same success again, Combes offers a simple reason:

“How could she have bettered a play like this?”

A Taste of Honey runs at The Royal Exchange Theatre from 12 November until 6 December. Box office: 0161 833 9833.

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RoyNovember 12th 2008.

As Phil points out, Delaney's story is a touchstone in many people’s lives. But not as a play, especially if you are like me, a Northerner, relying on the cinema not the theatre. My knowledge of it is only in Tony Richardson's iconic film. I suppose that it had the same effect on cinemagoers as it had on the theatre crowd; people like us had engaging and relevant stories and experiences which when inspected could feedback emotion and knowledge. Certainly for me, the film forms the centre of my own collection of 'gritty Northern realism' titles which Richardson, Loach, Anderson and others went on to build.I went to see the 50th anniversary theatre production because I thought I should, just as one thinks one ought to wear a poppy in November. Part of recognising and supporting my heritage I suppose. Reading the pre-press, I looked forward to seeing Sally Lindsay in the role made famous by the fabulous Dora Bryan, partly because of her well-seen comedy undertones in Corrie.What did I make of it ? Well, my partner and I both said the same thing as we exited into St Annes Square; half an hour too long. On first sight, that type of response is usually a comment on the quality of Direction, where pace and phrase fails to contend with length. However, although it must be said that the Direction adds little to the content (other than the spurious and slightly 'fringe' elements of pop music and cast-dancing which could be dropped without loss), the real fault is with the ensemble acting of the cast and the, frankly, poor casting.Individually there are some good performances, and one must single out Jodie McNee as Jo, who is on stage for the entire 2 and a half hours and moves well between the humour, anger, despair, hope often contained in a couple of lines. Sally Lindsay is something of a disappointment, playing Helen as slightly too calculating and overbearing, sometimes moving into frightening with the vehemence of her snarls. Her basic fragility is then at odds when it is asked to be portrayed. What she does do well, and obviously because the vernacular is in her ear rather than in the hands of a voice-coach (yes there is one), are the throwaway laugh lines that rely on Mancunian wit. Jimmie the sailor is OK, but dirty Peter is far too young for the role, and is a little too desperate to play seedy. Hard to see how anyone could better Murray Melvin's portrayal of Geoffrey, and even though Adam Gillen works hard he fails by delivering a confusing portrayal of a mincing retard saddled in life with a good vocabulary. When working together, there are too many occasions when cast members are waiting for one player to finish their lines, so they can say theirs, and when interplay is stilted. And that's when one's immersion in the story being delivered starts to flag, and the time starts to drag.On the plus side, this is really well done as theatre in the round, with some quality work done on set and lighting.There is no doubting the contemporary nature of the script themes, and this will never change so long as we have a class system that can condemn a section of society to subsistence-living, economically, emotionally and aspirationally. That's the real value of what Shelagh Delaney set down 50-odd years ago.Should you go ? Of course. It's your Salford

RoyNovember 12th 2008.

I aim to please.

TrevNovember 12th 2008.

I find Roy's reference to a "mincing retard" really offensive and guess the fact that people still find it acceptable to talk in these terms is the reason Delaney wrote the play in the first place and why it's still relevent today. I saw the play at the matinee on Saturday with my daughter and found it to be a marvellous piece of theatre that appealed to her just as much as me. In her words I have one more thing to say to Roy - "get a life!"

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