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.