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A Taste of Honey

"My usual self is a very unusual self." — Jo
A Taste of Honey
Kate O'Flynn as Jo and Lesley Sharp as Helen (Photo: Marc Brenner)
The revolution in British twentieth century playwriting dates to John Osborne with his play Look Back in Anger in 1956 which had his generation of playwrights dubbed "Angry Young Men". In 1958 Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey hit the headlines and she was called "an angry young woman."

Her play is groundbreaking for the 1950s as it features an unmarried teenage mother, the black father of her child, her neglectful mother and abusive stepfather and her supportive gay friend. We are told that Delaney at 18 had just seen a play by Terence Rattigan, Variations on a Theme and thought that she could write a more relevant play.

Certainly Rattigan's rather refined middle class characters are very different from Delaney's who live in shabby rented accommodation within sight of the gas works and the local slaughterhouse in Salford, an area outside Manchester. The other unusual element of A Taste of Honey is that the author is a teenage girl and her two main characters are women. Jo (Kate O'Flynn) is 18 and just finishing at school. She is constantly moving around with her mother Helen (Lesley Sharp) a pretty, well turned out woman whose succession of inappropriate boyfriends cause her to keep moving away. Manipulative Helen drinks and leaves Jo alone when she goes off with boyfriend, and husband to be, Peter (Dean Lennox Kelly).

Jo meets a young black sailor Jimmie (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and their flirtation leads to her getting pregnant. Jimmie is away at sea for six months and Jo has no way of contacting him. Jo meets Geoffrey (Harry Hepple) a gay art student who wants to befriend her and Geoffrey comes to stay in the Salford house and looks after Jo. Helen turns up again and things are not going well with Peter who comes in very drunk and is nasty to both Helen and Jo.

Delaney's characters are very well drawn and the performances here are first rate. Lesley Sharp cuts every ounce of maternal instinct from Helen whose selfish behaviour results in her carping and viciously destructive conversation. Kate O'Flynn, as Jo, shows her sardonic and dry humour, and this humour masks Jo's own vulnerability and naivety. She has been brought up in the school of knocks.

Hildegarde Bechtler's set shows us the depressing interior of the run down ground floor, one bedroomed flat with its view of the giant cylinder of the gas works close by. To the side is the view of the street, a relentless row of red brick plain houses and the rain is ceaseless. The effect is a depressing oppressiveness. For the early part of the play, gawky Jo is in grey school uniform, duffle coat and grey socks where her elegant mother wears a succession of new frocks, high heeled shoes and neat hats to go with her bottle blonde hair. There are jazz tunes, soulful clarinet and trumpet, sounds of that era to accompany the play.

Bijan Sheibani gets good performances from his cast and Dean Lennox Kelly's drunken Peter is chillingly convincing as the cruel step father. Eric Kofi Abrefa is a gentle diversion for Jo as he offers to carry her books back from school. Harry Hepple is kind and considerate as the art student but unable to stand up to the controlling and critical mother.

There is social commentary as, in an earlier scene, Jo reassures Jimmie that her mother isn't prejudiced which contrasts well with, later, her mother's horrified reaction when she is told that Jo's unborn baby will be mixed race.

A Taste of Honey was Shelagh Delaney's only theatrical success although she went to write successful screenplays. There is a film clip from a television programme where Shelagh Delaney tells the interviewer that what had meant most to her was seeing the bricklayers and cabbies going to her play in London's East End.

It is interesting to see how this 1950s play stands the test of time and of course it reminds us how far we have come in terms of attitude to Delaney's then unconventional characters.

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A Taste of Honey
Written by Shelagh Delaney
Directed by Bijan Sheibani

Starring: Lesley Sharp, Kate O'Flynn, Dean Lennox Kelly, Eric Kofi Abrefa, Harry Herpple
Designed by Hildegarde Bechtler
Music: Paul Englishby
Movement: Aline David
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Lighting: Paul Anderson
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
The National Theatre Website
Booking to 11th May 2014
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st February 2014 performance at the Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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