Review: A Taste Of Honey (The Lowry and tour)

The National Theatre production of Shelagh Delaney’s play opens its UK tour

David O'Brien and Jodie Prenger
David O'Brien and Jodie Prenger
© Marc Brenner

If one of the rewards of watching theatre for an audience is seeing their own lives reflected back at them onstage, there's something particularly resonant about Shelagh Delaney's Salford-set play opening at The Lowry. The National Theatre's touring revival is comforting and warm-hearted, but lacks the bite of the grim Northern hardship Delaney depicts.

The play focuses on the strained relationship between mother and daughter Helen and Jo, who move into a dilapidated Salford flat. As they quarrel over Helen's prioritisation of her lovers above her daughter, Jo has to mature as a young woman while navigating her own burgeoning romance. The strength of these characters is met by the boldness of the performances. Jodie Prenger crackles with vivacious confidence as Helen. With a twinkle in her eye, she carries her head high, strutting across the stage like a peacock. Gemma Dobson attracts sympathy as the suffering Jo, sulkily plodding around the flat with arched eyebrows, smouldering with frustration at her mother's neglect. Their dysfunctional dynamic is well calibrated so there's hostile friction in their rally of insults, even if the exchanges are sometimes a little rushed.

The bleakness of their predicament – Helen beguiled into financial dependence on her sleazy lover Peter – is visually translated by Hildegard Bechtler's set. High walls, dark grey pillars and grated windows through which Paul Anderson's murky light seeps, the miserably inhospitable flat appears like a warehouse. Smoke percolates through the flat like lingering past dreams and shadows of Helen's lost potential: she laments, "I shouldn't have given up singing" and chastises Jo for repeating her mistakes. Prenger brilliantly portrays Helen's regret, often looking out into the audience as though at her past self, making these moments of sobering reality the most affecting in the evening.

They are, unfortunately, overwhelmed by the honey-sweet taste of the predominant upbeat, cheery tone. Though director Bijan Sheibani bolsters the pace with frequent movement, he also focuses unashamedly on tugging at the heartstrings. There are moments when this proves emotionally stirring, such as Jo and boyfriend Jimmie swirling around the sofa as though lost in their own world and accelerating future together. However, the portrayal of Jo's better life escaping her mother's past mistakes would be stronger if the tone was better balanced, as too often the style of a family-pleasing musical betrays Delaney's kitchen-sink realism.

Nevertheless, the production seems intent on pleasing its audience and its warm embrace makes it an enjoyable evening. It fondly revisits a British classic, but would serve full justice to its presentation of life in the North by realising it only needs a taste, rather than a jarful, of honey.