Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey when she was just 18 years old, and sent it off to Joan Littlewood at Stratford East who kicked it around in rehearsals and created a controversial sensation when it opened in May 1958.
Delaney – who died in 2011 – remains a one-play wonder, though she wrote two fine screenplays, Charlie Bubbles (for her Salford soul mate Albert Finney), and Dance with a Stranger, Mike Newell’s film about the last woman hanged in Britain, Ruth Ellis.
Raw deals for women are at the heart of the play, still strong and surprising in Bijan Sheibani‘s jazz-flecked revival, the mother of all mother and daughter dramas, in which young schoolgirl Jo (Kate O'Flynn) is made pregnant by a black sailor in the first half and almost happy by a gay art student in the second.
Jo’s mother, Helen (Lesley Sharp), is an itinerant prostitute hounded by a drunken blue-suited fancy man, Peter (Dean Lennox Kelly), who claims that the world is littered with women he’s rejected. His black eye patch may or may not be functional; he vaguely claims it’s the result of a war wound. Jo’s dead father is not to be talked about. He had "strange eyes," too.
The huge width of the Lyttelton proscenium is filled with the receding perspective of a terrace of small redbrick Salford houses, and that front cloth rises on Hildegard Bechtler‘s huge revolving interior of a squalid damp rented room. This discrepancy of scale is not always compensated for by the size of the performances.
Sharp is the exception, pushing out Helen as an extraordinary blonde vision of non-stop mobile vulgarity, even turning a banal search for a gas meter into an expressive dance number, like a gyrating corkscrew. She cha-chas around in her lingerie, too, on her supposed wedding day, confessing sadly to her daughter at the end that she never thought about her when she was happy.
This brilliant performance of a monstrous role is counterpointed with daring (not always successful) understatement by the raggedy urchin-like Jo of O'Flynn, gangly in grey socks and gymslip, and playing her great scene of tenderness with Jimmie the sailor with touching frankness: "Don’t do that!" "Why not?" "I like it."
Jimmie also admits he’s "only after one thing," but Eric Kofi Abrefa seems nothing but a soft sweetie, as though deliberately playing against stereotype. The same flavour-draining approach is taken by Harry Hepple as Geoff the art student, not remotely camp in his Teddy boy hairstyle and baggy jeans, as if "normalising" the character’s gayness to bring it up to date.
The shock element is restored, though, when he brings home a doll for Jo to "practise" on. It’s the wrong colour, she protests, claiming she’ll kill the baby when it comes. But we know she won’t. Everything about the play reeks of a horrible authenticity, what Kenneth Tynan described as "the smell of living" in 1958.
Helen’s final wrecking gesture is still as appalling, and comprehensible, as it was originally. And we’re left with the gleaming, surviving tenacity of a mother whose daughter will remain a stoical, unloved victim all her life.
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