A TASTE of Honey may be 61 years old, but there is nothing dated about Bijan Sheibani’s production for the National Theatre, currently running at the Trafalgar Studios until the end of February. Issues of race, poverty, class and sexual orientation are all aired against a backdrop of jazz played live on stage – some of the themes as relevant today as they were back in 1958. It’s all rather good and watchable – and testimony to the lingering powerfulness of Shelagh Delaney’s writing (the play was written when she was just 19).
Set in a wretched bedsit near the Manchester Ship Canal, the play is centred around the fractious relationship between mother Helen (Jodie Prenger) and daughter Josephine (Gemma Dobson). Selfish Helen likes her liquor and men (quantity rather than quality matters), much to the frustration of 17 year old Josephine who has never met her father. Josephine rages at having to hop from one bedsit to another, living out of a suitcase, as Mum runs away from yet another escapade. Her only comfort is a box of bulbs – a symbol maybe of a better life ahead – and a talent for drawing portraits. Poverty oozes from the bedsit’s rotten floorboards.
When Helen’s latest (and much younger) conquest Peter (Tom Varey) appears on the scene promising wedding bells and plenty more besides, she only has eyes for the serial philanderer (peas out of the same pod). She soon packs her bags, leaving Josephine to fend for herself in a bedsit with a leaking roof – and with a slaughterhouse for a view. The canal wafts obnoxious smells into the shambolic room.
While Helen enjoys Peter’s wallet (containing pictures of loves past and present), Josephine finds comfort in sailor Jimmie (Durone Stokes), home on leave. Kindly on the surface, and promising to return after his next stint at sea is over (fat chance there) he leaves her with a present she didn’t necessarily want or expect. Along comes Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson) who moves in and mothers Josephine as she grows larger and larger. He’s practical, he’s truly kind and obviously gay (a big thing back in 1958).
All’s fine until Helen comes back – at Geoffrey’s behest – to check up on her daughter. It’s obvious that things are no longer going swimmingly well between Helen and a rather nasty Peter who is a drunk. It’s not long before Helen (traded in for a younger model by Peter) is back for good, pushing Geoffrey away as if he were tainted goods. The vitriol that Geoffrey receives from both eye-patched Peter and Helen is vile. The play’s final revelation (to Helen) leaves her in desperate need of a drink. Same old Helen.
This is a quite brilliant production although some (the people sitting in front of me) will hark back with nostalgia to the 1961 film, directed by Tony Richardson and starring amongst others Rita Tushingham (Josephine) and Dora Bryan (Helen). The play’s direction is superb as is the set (Hildegard Bechtler) with one scene when Josephine is perched on a swing quite memorable. It’s about the only time in the play that there is a suggestion of love – rather than lust and grim reality – in the grimy, polluted Manchester air. The way Sheibani allows the cast, stagehands and musicians to interact as scenes are changed is clever – Jimmie, for example, giving Geoffrey cold stares even though he’s the one who has given Josephine the cold shoulder.
Dobson is the pick of the cast although it’s a close run thing. She’s like a verbal machine gun as she derides her mother’s ways. Marvellous. Prenger and Stokes hit all the right notes with their singing – Prenger has real stage presence – while Varey’s Peter is a perversely entertaining mix of nastiness, drunkenness and creepiness (not to be trusted around women of any age).
A Taste of Honey is well worth tasting.