King's Theatre Edinburgh (venue)
24 September 2021 (released)
25 September 2019
Shelagh Delaney’s much acclaimed ‘kitchen sink drama’ about a seventeen-year old working class girl in 1950’s North West England, who finds herself pregnant and increasingly at odds with her domestic surroundings, is currently running at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre.
The 'action' takes place in Delaney's hometown of Salford - hardly surprise that. The setting is a large slovenly basement flat where our cheeky heroin Jo (Gemma Dobson) lives with her forty year old booze-loving mother Helen (Jodie Prenger) who loves ‘dolling’ herself up. Money is short but Helen always seems to find admirers eager to help out. The mother-daughter relationship is an amusing one for the audience. Both are pretty pushy but in a number of respects Jo is more progressive, as demonstrated by Jo’s drawings pinned onto a wall. However, due to her mother’s constant moving Jo never makes it to art school and soon will fall into the same trap as her mother did: Jo meets a young black sailor called Jimmie (Durone Stokes) and love ensues. He even presents her with a ring which Jo carries around her neck as she doesn’t want Mum to find out. The love between Jo and Jimmie doesn’t last for long though! After one night of passion, Jo finds herself ‘up the duff’. Despite Jo's plucky personality she is, like most teenagers of her time, sexually naive. Being a sailor, Jimmie departs for foreign shores soon after. Meanwhile, Mum has gone off with her 'fancy man' Peter (Tom Varey), considerably younger than her and sporting an eye patch. We can be almost sure that her romance won’t last long either!
In the second act we are introduced to another central character, the gay and sensible Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson). In case anyone may have been a bit slow in realizing Geoff is gay Act 2 kicks off with him singing Noel Coward's 'Mad about the Boy'. After some initial hiccups (it is hinted at that Geoff has been kicked out of his accommodations due to his sexual orientation) he and Jo strike up what appears to be a deep and meaningful relationship. Fastidious and house-proud, Geoff begins to feel protective and almost deludes himself that he is in love with Jo – in any case he agrees to be the future surrogate father to her child. We cannot help but to be moved by their rather tragic but sensitive 'friendship'. During one particularly caring moment he present her with a doll (a Caucasian doll) so she may practice motherhood. Incensed, Jo brashly tells him “It's the wrong colour”. Geoffrey, of course, does all of the cooking and housework (which could explain a big 'why' for the narrow minded populace) while Jo, just like her mouthy mother, isn’t to keen on domestic chores. We know it can’t be long before Mum returns and poor old Geoff gets his marching orders: “Are you telling me I don't know me own daughter?” Quite honestly Geoff could have replied: “Yes”. The ending is somewhat depressing (as kitchen sink dramas are) for Mum Helen suddenly feels the urge to hit the pub upon learning that her future grandchild will be ‘of colour’ while Jo, feeling sorry for herself, has as yet not fully realized that Geoff won’t be returning.
Delaney is spot on with her characterization - most Southerners 'really' knew that singer/actor George Formby did not typify the North - but the South is where the money is and ironically that is where Delaney got her big chance. Author/playwright Shelagh Delaney, a working class girl from the underprivileged city of Salford, was a mere eighteen years of age when she wrote this play. Little could she have known then that even eight years after her death A TASTE OF HONEY would still be in Rep; and it is only too easy to see why. It is also quite remarkable that someone at such a tender young age was able to write about a miscegenous relationship in such a sympathetic way. Despite her prodigious talent sadly Delaney was never able to repeat its success. One also wonders had she not had the nous to send the play to the then wunderkind of Stratford East's old Theatre Royal the near revolutionary Joan Littlewood (although we shouldn't overlook the wise overseeing eye of her partner Gerry Raffles) she may never have even got a 'foot in'. The play premiered at that Theatre in 1958 and was adapted for the screen in 1961 with Rita Tushingham in the role of Jo. Delaney's understanding of character is quite remarkable for a rank ingénue.
On the whole this new stage production, courtesy of the National Theatre, is nicely handed and we have some satisfactory all round performances, in particular Gemma Dobson and Jodie Prenger. There are also some surprise elements thrown in, for example when Jimmie renders a nice version of Rabbie Burns’ ‘My love is like a Red, Red Rose’ (what?) when he’s wooing Jo with the help of a somewhat underused musical stage trio playing piano, bass and drums.
A TASTE OF HONEY runs until Sat 28th Sept (www.capitaltheatres.com)
(Photo by Marc Brenner)