Mark Babych has been in place as artistic director of Hull Truck Theatre for some nine months and the current programme distinctly shows his input in its structuring and community involvement, but A Taste of Honey is in fact his first directorial assignment in his (relatively) new post. Shelagh Delaney's 1958 play was famously written when she saw a Terence Rattigan play and decided she could do better.
It is one of the most durable of the so-called "kitchen sink" plays, dealing with the problems of Jo, a teenage girl in Salford, pregnant by a black sailor who has returned to sea, and finding more support from Geoff, a homosexual art student, than from Helen, her wayward, sexually promiscuous mother. Such themes of sex, race and gender identity were not part of the stock in trade of the typical 1950s well made play!
Babych is convinced that the relationships and issues in A Taste of Honey remain relevant and vibrant today:
"It holds up incredibly well. The extraordinary relationship between the mother and daughter has an enduring quality. We have a wonderful young writer in residence here and we've asked her to write response pieces to the play in the form of letters to Shelagh Delaney. The first time she came into rehearsal she felt that the dialogue and the issues in the play were speaking to her powerfully – and this is a 17-year-old girl!
"The hopes, dreams and aspirations of the play are still in people's minds. Obviously social conditions have changed, but certain human needs remain the same. We have moved on – maybe not enough – in terms of inter-racial relationships and in dealing with gay issues, but what about the issue of gay parenting, Geoff wanting to be in some way a parent?
"In the play we're in an era of post-war austerity and ‘times is ‘ard'. Well, times is hard now and for young people in our city dreams and aspirations are very important – how can they achieve the things they want?
"Shelagh Delaney felt that that the well-made plays of the time had nothing to do with her, didn't really speak to her. The dialogue between Jo and Helen sings beautifully – we've got two very skilled actors in the parts – but there is something in the rhythm and texture of the dialogue that she wouldn't have heard in a West End play. The authenticity is a large part of the appeal of revisiting this play. The question of the working class woman's voice was very interesting to us."
The exploration of A Taste of Honey in its time and in our time is key to an enterprising and well-structured Spring/early Summer programme. It may be the only in-house main stage production, but it follows its Hull run with two weeks at co-producer Derby Theatre, then a tour of seven more venues.
Meanwhile, at Hull Truck, the support programme includes showings of the films Look Back in Anger and Billy Liar, introduced by Associate Director Nick Lane, and a new series of events under the title "Discover". Three current female playwrights discuss the play in Shelagh Delaney: Where are you now? and a Discover Day wraps workshop and discussion around a Saturday matinee performance. The play-reading group, The Play's the Thing, tackles Rita, Sue and Bob Too by Andrea Dunbar, a 1980s successor to Shelagh Delaney.
Babych talks frequently of establishing contact and conversation with both the works being presented and with Hull Truck's audience, "to connect up everything a bit more closely, to strand everything a bit more clearly, to bring more coherence to it." For instance, it's exciting to find the Eclipse Theatre/Young Vic production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead coming to the Hull Truck Studio in May, but the drive for coherence means that this is supported by a Discover panel discussion and a reading of The Island, the other great collaboration of Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona – and, remarkably, the play that launched Babych's directing career.
There has obviously been a partial shift in Hull Truck's priorities from a theatre in the sense of a company making plays to a theatre in the sense of a building that caters to the needs of a city and facilitates the work of what Mark calls the "makers" within the community. So May to July will see Grow, a festival which will feature the best new work that's been happening in Hull.
But for now Babych's priority is his first production as artistic director and, after all the earnest talk about the issues raised, he happily enthuses about the characterisation, humour and language of A Taste of Honey:
"I love Shelagh Delaney's approach to character and I love her lens on the world she's portraying. The play's about wishes and dreams and in that sense, imaginatively, the way we're approaching it allows us to investigate an approach to the play which is not just bleak social realism – there's a kind of magic realism in it as well. It's inspired to some extent by Joan Littlewood's approach in the first production, but it's not her approach – we've not got a band on stage, we're not approaching it through jazz, but I don't want to say too much and spoil the surprise!"
A Taste of Honey plays at Hull Truck Theatre from 27 March - 19 April.
Other Yorkshire dates on tour are:
13-17 May - Cast, Doncaster
20-24 May - Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
8-12 July - Theatre Royal, York