Lesley Sharp shines in National's Taste of Honey
Shelagh Delaney's 1958 drama ''A Taste of Honey'', written when she was just 18, has been revived at the National Theatre
...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... 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... 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.
...Bijan Sheibani's revival of the play, though a solid piece of stagecraft, isn't as enjoyable as the film, which benefited from its atmospheric locations. But you can certainly see why Morrissey so admires Delaney. Both mine the same rich vein of melancholy and wry humour... With her peroxide perm and constant inane, self-centred chatter, Lesley Sharp memorably captures the loose morals and fecklessness of this dreadful woman, though she isn't as funny as Dora Bryan in the movie. Kate O'Flynn brings a touchingly bruised quality to the role of the daughter, coupled with a resilience and wit that seem heroic in her desperate circumstances. There is fine work too from Eric Kofi Abrefa as the charming sailor, Harry Hepple as her gentle homosexual protector and Dean Lennox Kelly as the vile stepfather. Hidegard Bechtler's design of the terraced street seems to have been lifted straight from Corrie, and though I am glad to have seen this stage version I much preferred the vitality of the film to this somewhat leaden, it's-grim-up-North production.
...this production uses Paul Englishby's score largely as a scenic link: it has a tonic effect, beautifully captured in the moment when pregnant Jo's gay companion, Geoff, does a back-heeled kick to put a sofa bed deftly back in place. Delaney's strength, however, was her portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship...Sheibani and his actors remind us just how similar the two women are. Geoff perceptively points out that Helen "likes to make an effect", and that becomes the clue to Lesley Sharp's dazzling performance. In the first half, she constantly twirls and pirouettes in an outrageous display of arrested girlishness. Yet Sharp also suggests there is a buried maternal instinct in Helen and a terror that her daughter will repeat her own mistakes. And you see the force of that in Kate O'Flynn's excellent Jo...it is a tough, tenacious play with an emotional bite that proves it is more than raucous comedy. And, although the mother-daughter bond is at the heart of it, there's good work from the surrounding men...
Sharp is superb in this revival of Shelagh Delaney's pioneering play. From the moment she first trudges across the stage, snuffling pathetically as the result of a cold, she makes a vivid impression as Helen... It's a performance of pointed physicality and explosive feeling. Her Helen is a monster, yet one who is hilarious and never truly hateful... It remains a resonant piece, alive to the nuances of class and language... Jo embodies an intriguing mix of cynicism and hopefulness and Kate O'Flynn gives her a combative vitality. In truth, she is not always audible but she is often at her best when doing least. In repose she has an extraordinary serenity. Dean Lennox Kelly revels in the role of booze-sodden cad Peter... the impressively detailed set at times seems an encumbrance, making parts of what is essentially a very intimate piece feel remote. Yet even if the play's more touching qualities are not fully evoked, the stellar performances of Sharp and O'Flynn make this an absorbing evening.
...while Delaney's play documents the squalid disorder in which they live, her drama is not miserable. Rather it is charged with perplexed outrage: she spies in these women a bruised vitality and a rebellious refusal to conform to the dullness and drudgery they are expected to embrace... Bijan Sheibani's revival is sympathetic but fitful and sometimes laboured. The text is baggy and long-winded in places and the staging strains then to stay afloat. The cast struggle at times with audibility and look a little lost on Hildegard Bechtler's imposing but limiting urban set. Performances, though, are tremendous. Lesley Sharp is brittle, volatile and finally vicious as the feckless Helen, a woman brutally aware that her stock is falling. Kate O'Flynn is truculent, defiant and vulnerable as Jo, a love-starved loner thrust unwillingly into motherhood.
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