If, like me, when you hear the words “a taste of honey” your first thoughts turn to Sugar Puffs, you may be in for a bit of a surprise if you’re not familiar with Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 semi-autobiographical play about Jo, a young girl, and her experiences of early adulthood and family relationships; because there’s not a lot of sweetness in evidence. That, of course, is the deliberate irony – the characters all get a taste of honey, but it’s barely enough to cover a slice of bread. One thinks of the trendy 60s version of the song by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, or the plaintive emotion of the Beatles’ version, and both are at odds with the subject matter of the play. The juxtaposition of cool jazz, played by an excellent live trio at the back of the stage, also suggests a sophistication and glamour that’s noticeably lacking from the reality of Jo’s existence. By the way, the leitmotif of “My Favourite Things” from The Sound of Music, nicely ironic though it may be, shatters the time integrity; “A Taste of Honey” appeared a year before the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage show.
Nevertheless, Polly Findlay’s new production is clear, crisp and unsentimental. The set accurately portrays Jo and her mother Helen’s miserable flat, with its tatty furniture and basic kitchen, and I like the way it revolves between scenes to suggest the passing of time but not a change of location; its almost pointless revolving emphasises the stasis of their situation. Running water cascading over a white tarpaulin at the back of the stage represents an almost permanent rainfall – perhaps a slightly over-cynical view of its Manchester setting – and the costumes and props are all accurately chosen with its era and location in mind. I really admired the attention to detail with the Woman magazine from which Helen reads out the cinema listings; when she leaves the magazine open, we could clearly see, from our vantage point in Row A, that she was reading from a cinema listings page – admirably realistic. I was a little critical of the Crucible’s recent Macbeth from the point of view of obstruction of sightlines; in this production too, the rather large foldaway table at the side of the stage blocked our view of the sofa in the set’s opening position, and a couple of times later in the play, which meant you could not see the face of the person (usually Helen) sitting on the left side of the sofa. I wish they would consider some of these problems a bit more seriously sometimes.
It’s still a very powerful play – it can certainly be considered as one of the 1950s seminal kitchen-sink dramas, and you can easily make a case for Shelagh Delaney to be the original “angry young woman”. With its grimness and dour characters, superficially it feels a thoroughly pessimistic play; alternatively you can look on it as showing indomitable spirit and the ability to survive despite everything, which in itself is rather optimistic. The programme notes offer a useful timeline to show its relevance to contemporary domestic and world events, which help you contextualise its mores and attitudes to prejudices that we would now consider historical. Helen, whom Delaney describes as a semi-whore, has used sex as a tool to make her way in the world but nevertheless she goes all prudish when confronted with what she considers a “pornographic” advertisement in “Woman” – very 50s. She is inter alia racist and homophobic, whereas Jo embraces (quite literally) the concept of the black boyfriend and the gay companion, which you can interpret as being a positive direction for society; but at the same time she has inherited her mother’s abilities to ridicule and destroy when it comes to personal relationships, which is going to limit her chances of future happiness. The bulbs that she brings when they first move into the flat with the hope of growing into something beautiful get forgotten and are left to rot; what will become of the baby that Jo is expecting – will it flourish and develop, or will it suffer the same fate as the bulbs? That sweet and sour combination, so cleverly encapsulated in that innocent-sounding title, is in every element of Jo’s life and you must make your own mind up as to whether or not it’s a positive conclusion.
There are some excellent performances on offer. I loved Eva Pope as Helen. Irrepressibly strong, selfish, bigoted, and with the ability to turn her mood on a sixpence – it’s a very believable performance, of an admittedly superbly written role. She looks perfect for it – an unscrupulous and well-presented slut, and I mean that kindly. Katie West’s Jo is suitably angry and frustrated, and is splendidly unpredictable in both her meanness and kindness. Both Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt she was a bit shouty; the youthfulness and exasperation of the character would probably make Jo quite a shouty person but it did come across a little tiring from time to time. I wondered if there could have been a little more subtlety in her approach; however it’s still a perfectly credible reading of the role.
I really liked Andrew Knott as Peter, Helen’s latest “unlucky man” – a pompous, arrogant and bitter lowlife who rides roughshod over anyone who gets in his way – which includes the women in his life. He was contemptible and loathsome and you really feel hatred for his character. He was vile. It was great. There was another excellent performance from Christopher Hancock as Geof, tentatively coming to terms with himself and then growing into the role of support for Jo as her pregnancy wears on, only to be dismissed by the self-seeking Helen after his misjudged attempt at a family reunion. His hapless attempts to stand up against the prejudice and protect his friend were heart-warmingly sad. Nice support too from David Judge as Jimmie, a glimmer of exotic hope in an otherwise cruel world – even if the character turns out to be all mouth and trousers in the end.
It’s a well-crafted and effective production of a play that can look drab on the page but that comes to life on the stage. It’s definitely worth catching for some excellent performances and authentic northern grimness.