A Taste of Honey. Hull Truck/Derby Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. 22-05-14

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Rebecca Ryan as Jo. Production photograph by Joel Chester Fildes.

A Taste of Honey was a very influential play, written in 1958 by eighteen year old Shelagh Delaney. She wanted to give British theatre a badly needed shot in the arm and found exactly the right place to do it- Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. Joan Littlewood was both a theatrical innovator and a fine play doctor and if you had something new and startling to say in 1958 there was nowhere better to say it. Some of the themes of the play, sexuality, parental neglect and cruelty, were shocking for the time. A whole strata of society was being placed in the spotlight after a period where the middle classes had been firmly centre stage. This movement, which had been kick-started two years earlier by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, became known as kitchen sink drama and it was far more controversial and shocking in its day than it seems now. It was regarded as dangerous and even anarchic. Working class characters were being given a voice and allowed to challenge social norms on stage and this was threatening to exactly those people who had formed the backbone of the theatre audience. These were exciting times for a young girl to dip her toe into. The best of what was written in the genre is honest, dynamic and heartfelt and the writing in A Taste of Honey still stands up remarkably well after 46 years. The dialogue feels real in the same way that the early episodes of Coronation Street were.

This is a solid workmanlike production which I didn’t feel quite caught the harshness of the play. This is a cruel world where there is not very much hope, a world which Jo’s youth and outspoken bravery is going to have to fight hard to overcome and I would have liked to see a harder edge to the direction from Mark Babych. Having said that it does still work really well and there are some memorable performances. Julie Riley was thoroughly dislikeable as Helen, the mother from hell, and all too believable in her selfishness and cruelty. She also looked pitch perfect for the period which matters in a play that is so much of its time. No wonder her daughter, Jo, is so ambivalent at the thought of being a mother- she has had an appalling role model. Rebecca Ryan is also very convincing as Jo- full of youth and energy- and her anger becomes very touching as we understand that it is coming from her vulnerability and need. Both the men who she turns to for support are nicely played. I liked the way that Lekan Lawal showed us a decent man who I felt would have liked to have done the right thing by her if things had been different. Christopher Hancock was extremely touching as Geoff, the gay young man who tries to find with Jo the loving relationship that society does not allow him to have by taking on the caring, motherly role that Helen has abrogated. I wasn’t so sure about the way that Peter was played by James Weaver. It was a little overplayed for my taste.

The live music from the cast is really well done and adds poignancy and atmosphere. I also enjoyed the fact that the three men gave us a great live set in the theatre bar before the play. Full marks to them for that.

I am glad to have had the chance to see A Taste of Honey on stage. It’s a fine piece of writing and the original production must have been something to see.

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