It’s hard to over-estimate the importance of Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play A Taste of Honey. Delaney wrote it when she was just 18, putting her in an exclusive literary club with Emily Bronte and more recently Polly Stenham, whose That Face played in the Crucible Studio last season. Part of the wave of ‘kitchen sink’ realism Delaney carved a path for angry young women everywhere with a tale that packed more punch than Coronation Street, covering slum housing, teenage motherhood, mixed race relationships, homosexuality and prostitution, all grittily laid bare. 50 years later the social context is rather different and although housing and poverty remain contemporary concerns, issues of race and homosexuality have changed enough to leave the text in danger of looking antiquated. What prevents the play from becoming a period piece is Delaney’s exuberant wit, excoriating social commentary and flawed but fleshy characters, however it’s up to Polly Findlay’s production to prove this and the results are mixed.
The production opens with a jolly jazz trio but these wholesome-looking musicians seem a world away from the grim Salford tenement which is to be the latest shabby doss for woman of the world Helen and her tempestuous teenage daughter Jo. Social refugees, the pair move from one grubby neighbourhood to another every time Helen’s fancy men tire of her particular brand of rouged lasciviousness. Since any show of maternal instinct would cramp Helen’s style Jo has developed into a feral creature, at once street-smart seventeen year old and little lost girl. Despite this ambivalence Katie West’s performance is played rather too young in the first half where she appears a bruised-kneed schoolgirl parading her petulance about the stage with a brattishness that belies some of the character’s rapier-sharp lines. There’s a lot of sound and fury but the sustained verbal assault doesn’t have much variation. West only brings the volume down in her exchanges with Jimmy – played with a touching tenderness by David Judge – her black prince who promises her the affection she craves but disappears leaving Jo in the same condition her mother found herself in 17 years earlier.
Sparking off Katie West’s raw anger, Eva Pope plays Helen as a born survivor who will get by so long as she’s got some red lipstick and a bottle of scotch. Though full of dash and Northern wit her chippy performance never betrays a true sense of the degradations of Helen’s life. Matching her good-time girlery is Andrew Knott as eye-patched Peter, a snappily-dressed spiv with a wallet-full of cash and some dishonourable intentions. Riding high on the post-war boom he promises to lift Helen out of her sordid life but his eye (singular) soon wanders.
The second half is more nuanced and the arrival of Jo’s gay flatmate Geoff, played with mannered sensitivity by Christopher Hancock, delivers more of the stinging sweetness the title promises. Jo’s childish curls are cut short and scene by scene her belly grows along with her burdensome fate. Summer heat and hormones make her as testy as ever and yet in the teasing and tender exchanges with Geoff we glimpse the potential of the stable domestic life that has so far been denied her. But although Jo credits herself with being a true contemporary, 1950s Salford is still not ready for a mixed race baby with a single mother and a gay dad.
Delaney’s text still sings with witty working-class brio and when the performances harmonise this production has moments of savage beauty, it’s just a shame that the levels are sometimes set so high they obscure the melody.