“Who… in 1958 was writing about an unmarried pregnant teenager, her gay friend, a gentle sexy black sailor and a single mother?” The answer is of course Shelagh Delaney who sent an unsolicited draft of a play from her home in Salford to Joan Littlewood at Stratford East. The result was, after much rewriting heavily ‘suggested’ by Littlewood, A Taste of Honey – returning to the West End for the first time in 60 years at Trafalgar Studios.
The direction, by Bijan Sheibani, is very fast-paced, often barely giving those on stage time to react to a situation before the next one comes along, the stage picture (design Hildegard Bechtler) being aided by David O’Brien’s Jazz trio which often appears to comment on the action and play during the balletic, rather fussy, scene changes, rather strange seeing that there are NO scene changes in this production!
Josephine, a troubled teenager, desperate for real love, is very believably played by Gemma Dobson, who gives the role the depth that the script fails to. Physically she looks the right age and has the teenage mannerisms at her fingertips. Especially strong are her scenes with her ‘friend’, art student Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson) in Act Two, who does his best to make his role ‘real’ and almost succeeds. He is perhaps the only protagonist with whom we have real sympathy.
Josephine’s mother, Helen, is portrayed as a blowsy whisky-swilling tart by Jodie Prenger, with just the right amount of swagger, but also, occasionally, a necessary touch of pathos, but it is very difficult to empathise with this character as we are not given enough motivation by the author. As Prenger plays her, she is NOT a pleasant person, and has no redeeming features.
The other two roles are thinly written: Durone Stokes makes the most of the role of sailor Jimmie, Jo’s first boyfriend, as does Tom Varey as Peter, the one-eyed car salesman who marries Helen. One cannot see why anyone, however desperate, would marry, or even go out with him! Varey does not quite avoid stereotyping this role, but again this is more the fault of the writing than the actor.
It is good to see A Taste of Honey again. It reveals itself as a period piece with attitudes redolent of the 1950s and with dialogue to match. At the time it was considered ahead of its time, and ‘gritty’ but the dialogue often seems tame and too intellectual (the characters quote Shakespeare) in 2019. As the programme notes state: “Delaney wasn’t angry – she was restless… oddly full of optimism”.
Review by John Groves
A Taste of Honey offers an explosive celebration of the vulnerabilities and strengths of the female spirit in a deprived and restless world, against the backdrop of working-class life in post-war Salford.
When her mother Helen runs off with a car salesman, feisty teenager Jo takes up with Jimmie, a sailor who promises to marry her, before he heads for the seas. Art student Geof moves in and assumes the role of surrogate parent until, misguidedly, he sends for Helen and their unconventional setup unravels.
Bijan Sheibani’s production of A Taste of Honey returns to the West End for the first time in 60 years at Trafalgar Studios. The remarkable taboo-breaking 1950s play written by Shelagh Delaney when she was just 19 plays a limited 12-week run in a co-production with Trafalgar Theatre Productions.
Jodie Prenger (Oliver!, Shirley Valentine, Annie, Abigail’s Party UK tour), leads the cast as Helen, with Gemma Dobson as Jo, Durone Stokes as Jimmie, Stuart Thompson as Geoffrey, and Tom Varey as Peter. They are joined by understudies Liam Bessell, Katy Clayton, Claire Eden and Nathan Queeley-Dennis.
A Taste of Honey is designed by Hildegard Bechtler. This production is reimagined in an exciting new staging featuring original compositions – influenced by blues and soul music – by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, and rearranged songs from the jazz era, performed live by an on stage three-piece band.
The lighting designer is Paul Anderson, the movement director is Aline David, the sound designer is Ian Dickinson for Autograph, and Company Voice Work is by Joel Trill.
A Taste of Honey
Thursday 5 December 2019 – Saturday 29 February 2020