A Taste of Honey | The Lowry | Saturday 21st September

Subdued is the word. We’re looking at a noirish basement. An underground nightclub, perhaps. A jazz trio – airbrushed drums, double bass, piano – serenade us. A brassy looking blonde starts to belt out a song as people move about the stage, draping her in coats and cases; a younger girl is dragged in her wake, scowling, gathering clothes about her like flotsam. Graffitied walls are turned by idle stagehands. A room coalesces. The mother and the daughter – Helen and Jo – start to bicker.

This is the National Theatre’s latest staging of Shelagh Delaney’s classic kitchen sink drama, A Taste of Honey, with Jodie Prenger (most recently seen in Years and Years) in the role of Helen and Gemma Dobson as Jo (having only recently played the same character in a slightly more interactive version at the Oldham Coliseum that saw her and her mum wrestling their cases through the audience itself). The casting of these two is crucial and the play lives or dies on the pairing. And whilst they fall short of the extraordinary nuance of the Dora Bryant / Rita Tushingham double-header in the Tony Richardson’s 1961 film, they are, it has to be said, a formidable team.

Credit where credit is due: Prenger has a voice that could summon the ghost of Amy Winehouse and the songs she sings – either in performance in the subterranean boozer that opens the play or, wistful, caught like a sun mote in recollection, as she sings in the home she tries to make with her daughter – are a million miles from Dora Bryant’s cheeky caterwaul. But there is more to Prenger than just the voice. She conjures a Helen who is monstrous, yes, but also frail, defensive, caught midway between desire for love (with a one-eyed lothario) and a rebarbative denial of her fading powers.

Dobson is an impressive sparring partner, however. It would be easy for Jo to be one-note, a whiny teenager quick with a cutting come-back. But the machine-gun back and forth between her and Prenger (“You’re man-mad.” / “I’m like you.” / “You know what they’re calling you around here? A silly little whore!” / “Well, they all know where I get it from too.”), is inter-cut with other versions of Jo: the young woman who just wants to be loved, romanced by a young Nigerian sailor (honey-voiced Durone Stokes, a gospel singer when he isn’t treading the boards); and then later the bored, mischievous, playful, belligerent Jo, pregnant and alone, befriended by Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson, in a performance that dazzles), a young gay man who we are introduced to via what seems like a dream sequence singing ‘Mad About the Boy’. The moment in which they call to each other – “We’re unique! Young! Unrivalled! Smashing! Bloody marvellous!” remains one of the best scenes in the play.

There is much to like in addition to the central performances themselves: Hildegard Bechtler’s set design and Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s musical numbers are both in their own way arresting. The set dwarves the characters and there is a lot of movement (in a way that has incited some commentators to call it fussy or distracting) but it gives the actors the room to dream – which arguably the story needs (these are people who need sky, who are given to staring out of windows, even if the only sights they get to take in are the slaughterhouse opposite). The music – the most obvious point of departure from the original words on the page – could so easily alienate as much as attract, but it works its smoky charm and you can’t help but watch with a loose smile on your face. Who said A Taste of Honey was grim northern miserabilism?

There are odd duff moments (at the very climax of the play, Tom Varey – the aforementioned one eyed lothario – seems to take his acting cues from Crispin Glover in River’s Edge, pointing and hamming it up in a way that isn’t entirely convincing) but they don’t detract from the love letter director Bijan Sheibani has fashioned for Shelagh Delaney. Because Shelagh Delaney remains the star of A Taste of Honey. She wrote this play when she was 19 and the dialogue sparkles and snaps with the same electricity it had way back when. There is a reason why the play is still so highly regarded some 40 years after it was first conceived. It’s funny, for one thing. Laugh out loud funny. Here is Jo and Helen talking:

Jo: I hope to be dead and buried by the time I reach your age. Just think you’ve been living forty years.
Helen: I know, I must be a biological phenomena.

Here is Jo and Geoffrey:

Jo: I feel like throwing myself in the river.
Geoffrey: Don’t do that, it’s full of rubbish.

But there is also a rank melancholy – you can understand why a young Morrissey was drawn to Delaney with her all talk of “the dream has gone but the baby is real” and “I dreamt about you last night – fell out of bed twice”. It’s a delicate balance but Delaney never puts a foot wrong. And that, ultimately, is why you should shell out your hard-earned and go pay homage. She was ahead of her time and A Taste of Honey remains the jewel in her crown.

by Peter Wild

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