Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey when she was 18, and I can’t help but marvel at what it must felt to be a teenage female playwright in the 1950s. But if you thought this is a period piece, encrusted and from the history books, think again. The story of a mother and daughter in mid twentieth century Salford takes on motherhood, class, race, sexual orientation and female identity and makes sense of the fumbling, contradictory way people go through life. It’s both admirable and frightening how contemporary its themes feel. (It’s almost sixty years since the play was written. In order to grasp what sixty years mean, it’s the difference between pre World War I Edwardian England and swinging sixties).
Complex ideas are matched by the vitality of the characters: seventeen year old Jo and her mother Helen are bursting – almost violently – with life’s desires. Neither saints or whores, they fumble into the dark, continuously pushed forward by their own irrepressible drive. The play is uncompromising in its sharpness: no easy stereotypes or conclusions, it will poke you relentlessly till the end.
In the National Theatre revival directed by Bijan Sheibani, the text is left to work its magic, but some directorial choices bothered me. When working away from the text, the tone tended to be effortful and artificial. Scene changes were bogged down by jazzily choreographed numbers that were neither transportive or naturalistic. Some scenes felt twee and out of place.
The cast is impressive, and for the most part doing an excellent job, but some awkwardness sipps into the performances: Lesley Sharp’s Helen is explosive, unapologetic and movingly self-aware of her shortcomings, but she occasionally strays into wicked witch territory. Kate O’Flynn, a supremely talented and idiosyncratic actress, bends every moment to her will, working through Jo’s growing pains with feverish clarity. But she too is left out on a limp occasionally, a moment too far or too quirky. I thought Dean Lennox Kelly balanced the tone best, his Peter both affable and dangerous, a vague threat enveloping his easy go lucky persona. Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Jimmie gives a beautifully open performance and Harry Hepple’s Geoffrey is winning and tender.
Despite occasional lapses, the production does justice to the power of the play – Kate O’Flynn’s silences speak louder than her outbursts, Lesley Sharp’s spiky reactions speak of a struggle she can never fully understand. There is nothing like a perceptive and talented eighteen year old bursting with potential and looking at life ahead. Even she looks at us from sixty years ago.