Mark Babych's production of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey seems intent on re-claiming the play from its "Kitchen Sink" reputation. Hayley Grindle's excellent set fills the expanse of the Hull Truck stage, from rubbish and grimy cobbles beneath Row A's feet to a bridge and steps at the back, opening up the opportunity for dramatically or comically silhouetted entrances. The details of the room are pretty sordid, but there is no claustrophobia in such an expansive setting.
In her premiere production, Joan Littlewood used an on-stage jazz trio; Babych goes further, with song breaking into, or backing, the action. This is a mixed blessing. Many of the doo-wop numbers and sentimental 1950s songs work really well in themselves and in creating atmosphere; the folky numbers ("Dirty Old Town", for instance) sound contrived and are not especially well done. And things get really unpleasant when James Weaver as Peter starts belting out ballads in drunken tunelessness. On the other hand, the little inserts on the fringe of the stage, many of them sung, give a cinematic flow to the production.
The more romantic approach throws attention firmly onto Jo, the 17-year-old central character. Rebecca Ryan is outstanding in bringing out her dreams, her intelligence, her love of life and her essential goodness over months of fear, neglect and disappointment. As the play begins, she and her feckless and promiscuous mother, Helen, move into yet another depressing flat. Peter, Helen's much younger lover, pursues her there and they marry; Jo has a brief affair with Jimmie, a black sailor (Lekan Lawal, nicely ambiguous in his intentions) who returns to sea, leaving her pregnant. Helen deserts her and her only friend is a gay art student, Geoff, who moves in, having lost his own flat because of his sexuality.
If Ryan's performance spans the years with total conviction, other performances have trouble with the fact that the past is a foreign country, even as recently as 1958. Christopher Hancock is excellent, sympathetically understated, as Geoff; gentle, not aggressively masculine, but hardly justifying the frequent use of the word "pansified". It's an impossible dilemma for the producer and actor: modern audiences don't want an effeminate caricature in the role, yet the text seems to suggest that. In the case of Peter, the production goes for full-on caricature of the boorish rich philanderer, with Weaver perpetrating the most extreme drunk act since Freddie Frinton played the halls.
Julie Riley plays the part of Helen to the hilt, but early on her performance is often, as it were, in quotation marks, assuming a role for the benefit of the audience or putting on the "posh" accent familiar from many Northern comediennes.
A Taste of Honey runs at Hull Truck Theatre until 19 April 19, then plays at co-producer Derby Theatre from 29 April 29 – 10 May.
On tour the production plays seven theatres, including the following Yorkshire venues:
13-17 May - Cast, Doncaster
20-24 May - Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
8-12 July - Theatre Royal, York