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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Kate O’Flynn and Harry Hepple/ Ph: Marc Brenner

Though somewhat compromised by the in-your-face permissiveness of today’s contemporary cinema and theater, the shock value of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey cannot be overestimated. Fifty-six years ago when the West End was dominated by comedies, thrillers, mild-mannered dramas and revues whose content was subject to the puritanical whims of the Lord Chamberlain, the play’s impact must have been extraordinary.

Suddenly out of nowhere, Joan Littlewood’s intrepid Theatre Royal at Stratford East stages a play featuring a pregnant teenager, her black sailor-boy lover, her promiscuous Medusa-like mother and her gay best friend. In one fell swoop Littlewood and Delaney took a scythe to the staid theatrical mores of the time and cut a swathe through the cosy conventions of middle-class theatregoing. The cherry on the top was that the author was a 19-year-old girl who’d never written a play before. 

Instead of an elegant Belgravia drawing room or some baronial estate in Surrey or Sussex, the setting was a dilapidated one-bedroom flat in a dreary part of Salford overlooking the gas works and a slaughterhouse. Taking up residence there are a monstrous, man-crazy single mum called Helen (Lesley Sharp) and Jo (Kate O’Flynn), her love-deprived teenage daughter with a smidgen of talent for drawing.

With no affection between them, they bicker constantly and get on each other’s (and the audience’s) nerves. Helen thinks nothing of abandoning her daughter when an unsalubrious car salesman called Peter (Dean Lennox Kelly) asks her to marry him; while Jo, desperate for affection, falls pregnant after a brief dalliance with Jimmie (Eric Kofi Abrefa), a black sailor who disappears shortly afterwards never to be seen again. Enter Geoffrey (Harry Hepple), an openly gay art student who befriends Jo, moves in with her and takes care of her every need in an attempt to bring a modicum of stability to her disorganised life. He hasn’t, however, bargained for the upheaval caused in the play’s second half when, after the (unsurprising) failure of her marriage, Helen returns to offer her heavily pregnant daughter some matriarchal support.

Though relentlessly bleak, the play, which is leavened with some pungent touches of humour, is, it could be argued, life affirming inasmuch as Jo refuses to accept defeat. Its power to shock – even outrage – must have been truly overwhelming, especially as the only sympathetic character was a homosexual man – absolutely taboo at the time.

Despite inconsistencies in characterisation, sloppy construction and awkwardly contrived entrances and exits, A Taste of Honey is worth reviving, if only as a piece of social and theatrical history. But as more than a half a century of change has diluted its initial power, it needs to be more convincingly staged than it is at the Lyttelton if it is to appeal to contemporary audiences.

For starters, the theatre is far too big for such an intimate play. Hildegard Bechtler’s panoramic set draws attention away from the personal dramas being acted out, while the direction by Bejan Sheibani – whose productions of The Kitchen and Damned by Despair brought no glory whatsoever to the National Theatre – is overblown. Particularly irritating are the half-hearted dance routines with which each new scene begins. No wonder the cast looks so embarrassed performing them.

As Helen, Sharp is certainly feisty, albeit occasionally shrill and pantomime dame-like. O’Flynn has the right quality for Jo, but her strong accent renders much of her dialogue unintelligible. Abrefa’s sailor boy Jimmie makes no impression whatsoever. And Hepple, in the role originally created by Murray Melvin both on stage and on screen, needs to be more overtly effeminate (as Melvin so memorably was) in order to elicit such instant homophobia from Helen’s loathsome husband – played by Dean Lennox Kelly in the most consistently effective performance of the evening.

This is a disappointing revival of an important and influential period piece.


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