A Taste of Honey at Richmond Theatre review ***

A Taste Of Honey

Richmond Theatre, 9th October 2019

Not quite sure I know how a production such as this is taken under the wing of the National Theatre, and let’s face it it’s none of my business anyway. But I do think I can work out why this particular tour, which has taken in in some fair sized commercial theatres came to pass. This production of A Taste of Honey, with Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn in the leads, was a qualified success in 2014 on the South Bank. But the NT needs to be more, er, National. So spread the cost and risk so that the NT provides the brand and product and the theatres stump up the cash. Take a renowned play, though probably better known as a film, with historical appeal and contemporary relevance, and wait for the curious punters to roll in. Let Bijan Sheibani, who has since had a monster hit with Barber Shop Chronicles, (which, in another of the coincidences that continue to punctuate the Tourist’s cultural adventures, I saw for the first time literally the next day), show his best. And cast big TV and musicals star Jodie Prenger as the brassy Helen, alongside relative newcomer, Gemma Dobson as punchy daughter Josephine.

Shelagh Delaney famously wrote A Taste of Honey, the archetypal kitchen sink drama, when she was just 19. It would be pretty unusual for a working class woman to announce herself as a writer for theatre in this way in 2019. To do so in 1958 was, literally, a miracle. For which Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop, who first staged it at the Theatre Royal Stratford, were rightly grateful. Whilst she never quite went on to repeat the success of this mix of rich characterisation, sincere dialogue and dramatic allusion in her subsequent work, (the harsh reviews for her second play The Lion in Love stopped her from writing for the stage for the next 20 years), her place in theatrical history. Her ambition was fuelled after seeing a production of Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme and thinking she could do better. She was right. But in a world dominated by grammar school boys, she was never entirely at home, despite her fierce intelligence.

ATOH is still remarkable for its absence of judgement, its focus on two irreverent women, its atmosphere and its poetry. Helen and Josephine rub along, and rub up against each other, in their dingy Salford flat. Helen escapes with booze and dickhead blokes, namely one-eyed spiv Peter (Tom Varey). Teenager Josephine escapes through a fling with Nigerian sailor Jimmie (Durone Stokes). Pregnant she then turns to her gay, arty student best friend Geoffrey (another talented newcomer Stuart Thompson) for tea, sympathy and bitching.

If you don’t the story it is pretty easy to guess, its novelty, and scandal, having worn off with repeated replication. No matter it is still brilliantly executed. Or at least it would be in this production if it wasn’t for the endless and unnecessary scene changes, the very busy set from Hildegard Bechtler ,which just didn’t fit properly into the Richmond stage, the fussy lighting of Paul Anderson, and the jazz interludes from the three piece band of David O’Brien, Alex Davis and George Bird, awkwardly wedged on stage, with music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell and on stage singing. In moderation all of these elements would work but it was all just a bit too much distraction for a text that doesn’t need and, towards the end, does, whisper it, run out of steam a bit.

Whilst I am at it Jodie Prenger and Tom Varey also verge a little too much on the side of over expression which leaves the determined yet vulnerable Gemma Dobson as the best of the five strong cast.

I am very glad that I got to see this important slice of theatrical history and I think it will do well when it comes to London at the end of the tour at the Trafalgar Studios. But if we want a better idea of why it is, even through the prism of sixty years of social change, (for the better of course), such vital drama, then Tony Richardson’s film is a better bet. I see Rita Tushingham (there she is above), whose debut role as Josephine was lauded nearly as much as Shelagh Delaney’s screenplay, is starring in Edgar Wright’s upcoming horror film alongside other legends Diana Rigg, (any way else out there fantasising about Lady Oleanna turning up at their Christmas lunch), and Terence Stamp. I wonder why. Looking forward to that.

Valued Friends at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***

Valued Friends

Rose Theatre Kingston, 8th October 2019

I am all for revivals of modern plays that have something to say to us right now. Assuming the play was good enough in the first place. And that the director and creative team have a clear idea of how they craft that relevance whilst still staying true to the time and place in which they were written. In my experience texts from the 1970s and before, or those written in the last 20 years, fare best in this regard but those through the 1990s, and especially the 1980s, pose the most headaches. Recreate or update? And this was, remember, a fertile period for drama after a decade or so of artistic stasis. Largely because us luvvies like nothing better than to censure society, politics and culture that shifts rightwards. Thatcherism was a heaven sent artistic opportunity.

This is the context in which Stephen Jeffreys, who passed away last year, wrote Valued Friends in 1989, which premiered at the Hampstead Theatre before a West End transfer. The original cast consisted of Peter Capaldi, Jane Horrocks, Serena Gordon, Tim McInnerney, Martin Clunes and Peter Caffrey. Four thirty-somethings, Marion (here Catrin Stewart), Paul (Sam Frenchum), Howard (Michael Marcus) and Sherry (Natalie Casey), have rented a flat in Earl’s Court then an up and coming, (they always are), part of London since meeting at uni. Posh developer Scott (Ralph Davies) wants to ponce up the block and sell on and makes them an offer he thinks they can’t refuse to get out. However the bourgeois Marion sees an opportunity to negotiate and persuades vacillating partner Paul, the relaxed in the paddock intellectual Howard and the impecunious motormouth Sherry to hold out. A few turns of the wheel later and Sherry is paid off, setting out to travel the world and find herself, and the other three have bought the flat at a discount to do it up, with the help of builder and homespun philosopher Stewart (Nicolas Tennant). High flyer Marion eventually cashes out after splitting up with man-child music journo Paul, who becomes ever more obsessed with making money from the property.

Sounds interesting eh. I can certainly see why director Michael Fentiman was drawn to reviving it and what the Rose and co-producer Original Theatre Company agreed. Especially when you consider Stephen Jeffrey’s reputation. The Libertine, which popped up at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2016 with Dominic Cooper in the lead, is probably his most famous play but Mr Jeffreys was as much teacher, in his roles at the Royal Court, as he was writer. Which, given his skill in pacing, character, structure and language, is unsurprising. Valued Friends is a very well built play, full of telling detail. I am just not sure this production fully reflected that or whether its line of attack would make sense to an audience who wasn’t there at the time it appeared. The nature of their relationship with “property” is rather different.

For trust me the desire to succeed, to get on, to make money, infected us all. And that was most obviously expressed in the delirium of property ownership. Of course that urge, that need, remains but a decade of single digit average price inflation and falling volume of transactions, despite cheap money, doesn’t compare to the madness of the late 1980s, peaking at over 30% in the year before SJ wrote Valued Friends. A group made up of a struggling journalist, a second rate stand up (Sherry), and admin worker (Marion) and a PhD student wouldn’t be contenders to buy a prime flat in inner West London today, but, trust me, there was nothing far fetched about this then for all the money illusion. SJ takes this phenomenon to make broader points about accumulation, credit, greed, the erosion of community, the rise of individualism and the failure of markets. There is more to his dialogue that meets the eye, or ear maybe, sorry mixed metaphors, but this is subtly woven in to a still credible story of friendship and relationships.

It is funny but it is not just a comedy. However it seems that Mr Fentiman didn’t quite trust that reading and decided to dial up the laughs. Now I gather Natalie Casey is best know for her work in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Hollyoaks and West End musicals. All outside my ken I am afraid. She brings a feisty tenacity to Sherry, who keeps knocking at the comedy door despite making no money, but as an actor she is a bit full on and shouty. Conversely Ralph Davies’s reptilian Scott falters as the negotiation lengthens. And Nicolas Tennant’s turn as Stewart, whilst dissonantly amusing, rather distracts from an ending that already forces resolution. Sam Frenchum (so good in The Outsider adaptation at the Coronet), Michael Marcus and Catrin Stewart are much more sympathetic to the characterisation I think but still feel a little awkward at times, especially in the on-off relationship of the couple.

Michael Taylor’s set design, which shifts from student-y squalor to swish minimalism, does the job, and Madeleine Girling’s costume are spot on, but the lighting (Nic Farham) and sound (Richard Hammerton) are a bit too conspicuous.

Happy enough, especially for my tenner investment here, but couldn’t help thinking what it would be like to see a production of a play by Mr Jeffreys that really hit home.

Faith, Hope and Charity at the National Theatre review ****

Faith, Hope and Charity

National Theatre Dorfman, 8th October 2019

I didn’t catch the first two plays in Alexander Zeldin’s trilogy, Beyond Caring (zero hours contracts) and Love (a homeless hostel), about life for the disadvantaged in modern Britain. In fact worse that that I didn’t even know about them. And seeing Faith, Hope and Charity was something of a last minute decision driven by the strong reviews and a timing loose end.

Well more fool me. Creating a devised play about everyday life where not much happens but which still packs a powerful emotional and political punch is not easy. FH&C doesn’t shout, preach or hector because it doesn’t need to. It comes from the same place as the film collaborations of Ken Loach and Paul Laverty and I would imagine is driven by the same passion, but its mood is altogether more eloquent. Mr Zeldin’s other work, a play based on Lars van Trier’s The Idiots, directing Macbeth in Korea, Romeo and Juliet in Italy and operas in Russia (including Ades’s Powder Her Face) suggests he is a man of many talents and I can’t wait to see more of his work.

The simply astounding Cecilia Noble plays plays Hazel, a kind, redoubtable woman who volunteered to cook lunch for those in need in a dilapidated community hall on the edge of a nameless British town. With her soft, calm voice and unflappable temperament Hazel could hardly be more different from Ms Noble’s two previous roles on the Dorfman stage, as no-nonsense probation office in Bruce Norris’s Downstate and as comedic force of nature Aunt Maggie in Natasha’s Gordon’s brilliant Nine Night.

She is joined by reforming ex-criminal Mason, another superb performance from Nick Holder, who is setting up a choir, as much to aid his own rehabilitation as to help the locals. He starts to assist in the kitchen. The array of regulars include cranky pensioner Bernard (veteran stage actor Alan Williams) who can’t face his empty home, timorous Tharwa (Hind Swareldahab) and her daughter Tala, the extremely anxious Karl (Dayo Koleosho) always waiting for his carer, the truculent Anthony (Corey Peterson). And Beth (Susan Lynch), with teenage son Marc (Bobby Stallwood), whose chaotic life means she has lost custody of her 4 year old daughter, Faith, and is arguing with the court authorities to secure her return.

Mr Zeldin’s script makes plain the impact of austerity on the lives of his characters, the leaky community hall is eventually closed down due to lack of funds, but this is no grim polemic. His characters may be struggling but they are resilient, they are compassionate and, at times, optimistic. There is humour and joy through the various scenes, the Christmas lunch, the offer by Hazel to take in Faith though she has her own family issue, the relationship between Mason and Beth, the cheesy choral anthem “You’ve Got The Music In You”, but the realities of the impact of the broken social care system always looms large.

Natasha Jenkins’ set and Marc William’s utilitarian lighting is as note perfect as the dialogue. Mr Zeldin spent two years researching this play and it shows. Of course I know a couple of hours assuaging the guilt of a comfortable and sympathetic metropolitan audience makes fuck all difference to those people at the pointy end of austerity. Though I might respectively suggest the following.

  • Banish from your mind any thoughts that those in need are at fault. In any way. Ever. You are not better or cleverer. Just luckier.
  • Vote the right way. You know what to do.
  • Give £10 a month to the Trussell Trust. Pay for it by doing something veggie, green or healthy.

And now for the rant.

Local authorities will have seen an average 77% decrease in government funding in the four years to 2020. In real terms overall local government spending will have seen a fall in real terms of 30% since 2010. In the last 5 years food bank use in the UK has risen by 73%. According to the TUC` 3.1 mn children with working parents now live below the poverty line.

Austerity failed. Sucking demand out of a brittle economy will always fail. Spend on health (20%), education (15%) and pensions (15%) is going to run ahead of real growth and inflation. Slicing spend elsewhere and pretending that any job, however lowly paid and precarious, makes for healthy employment is nonsense. The UK cannot have the services it wants without paying for them. And if we don’t pay for them in the long run we will, as we are now, pay for it. Hiding debt by buying shitty assets was never a long term solution. We are already, public and private, the most indebted major economy on earth. Pretending we can cut ourselves off from Europe and pursue some buccaneering independent future is bollocks. Our debt cost will rise as our currency croaks and capital and labour will fuck off elsewhere.

The solution is simple. Pay more tax. Everyone who can afford it. The argument is over whether that be on wealth or income, not how much. And borrow more. A lot more. Everyone else is. And debt is cheap because there is no alternative. But use it to invest, support and drive sustainable growth, not buy votes. And right this minute end the farcical Brexit pantomime by immediate revocation. Doing something idiotic just because you don’t want to lose face, or hope that will make it go away is, well, idiotic. Time for toddler Britain to end the tantrum and face realities.

Merry Christmas.