Tuesday, May 28

A Taste of Honey – Royal Exchange Theatre

In 1958, a 19-year-old Salford girl called Shelagh Delaney went to watch ‘Variation on a Theme’ by Terence Rattigan at Manchester’s Opera House. Incensed at the portrayal of homosexual relationships in the play, she came out of the theatre thinking she could do something far better, inside two weeks she had written ‘A Taste of Honey’. This raw and powerful story of poverty, race and sexuality quickly became a crucial part of the ‘British New Wave’ and later supplied Morrissey with half the lyrics on the debut Smiths album.

The beating heart of this play is the relationship between Helen (Jill Halfpenny) and her teenage daughter Jo (Rowan Robinson), they are first seen arriving in squalid lodgings in a Salford backstreet with little money and even less hope.

Helen is described by Delaney as a ‘semi whore’, a harsh description, but it is fair to say she is a good time girl who takes doesn’t take her maternal responsibilities too seriously. Halfpenny plays the brittle and harsh elements of the character to great effect moving between seductress and fishwife with dexterity, she is totally motivated by what is best for her in the moment, with no thought to the consequences of her actions on those around her. What is missing in the writing is the more of the vulnerable part of Helen and the motive behind why ‘she is at the steering wheel of her own destiny, careering like a drunk driver’.

Robinson, a native Salfordian making her professional theatrical debut, is a revelation as Jo, the awkward teenager unsure of her place in the world and in her mother’s affections. Onstage throughout the entire two-and-a-half-hour runtime, she displays an extraordinary range and naturalistic style in her portrayal. Her diminutive stature and wide-eyed wonder allow the convincing vulnerability of the 15-year-old schoolgirl to be displayed, but she quickly shifts into aggression, sarcasm and soft coquettish flirtation as the world starts to tale bites out of her positive attitude. At the conclusion she is doomed to repeat the mistakes that her mother made, being left alone with an illegitimate child in poverty, and this wonderful portrayal leaves you willing her to rise above these circumstances and succeed in life.

Flitting (to use Salford slang) in and out of the lives of the two women, are the remaining roles which offer different versions of hope and salvation from their plight.

Peter (Andrew Sheridan) promises Helen marriage and Jo security, his descent from superficial charmer into a drunken philanderer with a hint of menace is greasily realistic.

Sailor Jimmie (Obadiah) allows Jo to love and laugh before disappearing back to sea leaving her pregnant and alone. Despite this less than sympathetic abandonment, Obadiah gives Jimmie a sympathetic and engaging personality, illustrating how Jo would fall for his easy charm as an antidote to the depression and grim reality around her.

And finally poor Geoff (David Moorst), the gay art student befriended by Jo, who wants nothing more than to act as a surrogate mother to Jo and father to the unborn baby. A great rapport is evident when he and Robinson are on stage together and the dialogue took on a conversational style that was compelling to watch. Moorst brings great humour to the part, a laconic, dry delivery style that contrasted beautifully with the torrent of emotion from Jo during her pregnancy.

Direction by Emma Baggott manages to combine both the tragedy and comedy inherent in the writing very well. The dark nature of the situation is interspersed with comedy sparring between all the main protagonists and the debt shows like Coronation Street and Shameless owe to Delaney is well drawn. She did have a tendency to break the fourth wall too often for comedic effect and her overt referencing of Othello, Oedipus and Ibsen smacked a bit of a bright A level student casually dropping in her learning, but the fact a 19-year-old wrote this masterful piece still astonishes.

The Design (Peter Butler) juxtaposes the gaudy and the drab, with fairground waltzer lights set against the grey interior of the Salford slum; a whirligig movement sequence opens the second half and accentuates the out of control world that Jo and Helen inhabit.  A cool jazz score is provided by singer Nishla Smith, acting as a musical chorus and providing a beautiful rendition of ‘Dirty Old Town’ Ewan McColl’s tribute to the Salford of the 1950’s.

Inevitably a play tackling contemporary social issues written 60 years ago will show some clunky moments with illegitimacy, homosexuality and sexual freedom no longer having same the power to shock, although the reaction of Helen to the news that her prospective grandchild would be of dual heritage still felt uncomfortably accurate in our increasingly intolerant society,

Seeing this show a stones throw from the River Irwell – the original ‘river the colour of lead – is a very special experience and the witty and savage heart of this show still capable of bringing a lump to the throat after all this time. If you broke this play in half it would have ‘Salford’ running through the middle like a stick of rock. It is tough on the outside, soft on the inside and the message that both financial poverty and lack of ambition are corrosive is still relevant as it passes pensionable age.

Verdict: Shelagh take a bow, a powerful version of a modern British classic with superb central performances.

Playing until 13th April, https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on/

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 20th March 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.