A Taste of Honey
Hull Truck Theatre Company
Hull Truck Theatre, Ferensway, Hull
A Taste of Honey marks the first production by Mark Babych since his appointment as Artistic Director of Hull Truck almost a year ago.
On the surface it seems an odd choice. A classic period piece from nearly 60 years ago famously written by a teenager from Salford. Yet the audience who were fortunate enough to see the opening night of this fine production must surely have recognised the themes of grinding poverty, racial intolerance and sexual exploitation as redolent of these times as any other.
And for a city like Hull, which has experienced the full horror of euphemisms such as ‘economic downturn’ there is a particular recognition. A live version of Ewan MacColl’s "Dirty Old Town", which concluded the first half, was never so poignant or appropriate. Yet as Hull shakes off its sneerers and detractors as it prepares itself for 2017 and City of Culture, somehow this production symoblises the city’s defiance and aspiration for better times.
It is perhaps too easy to pigeon-hole this play into the ‘kitchen sink’ era of post-Rattigan 20th century realism. For all its rebellious virtues, Look Back in Anger is more an exploration of middle class disillusionment than the visceral impact of poverty.
As the alcoholic and flighty Helen, Julie Riley is magnificent. Her weary sexuality is worn as brazenly as her high heel shoes and hideous fur stole. She is a sly, avaricious, scheming old haridan, and yet a survivor in a world where she has to play by the rules set by others. Riley’s portrayal is a triumph of sleaze and sympathy and, in a uniformly superb cast, she is a standout.
As Jo, Rebecca Ryan also gives a spellbinding performance. Jo’s complexity lies in her spiky rejection of her mother, yet falls for a sailor, Jimmi (Leken Lawal) and his promises of marriage pledged on a Woolworth’s-bought ring. Ryan brings to life Jo’s tragic naivete and her heroic stubbornness in equal measure.
There is no doubt, as his debut production at Truck, Mark Babych has a lot riding on the success of A Taste of Honey. He directs with impeccable care and with an attention to detail that is impressive and deeply sensitive to both the period and the tone of the play. The actors invest their roles with physical daring and a sense of poetry but never sentimentality. The final image of the abandoned Jo, alone in her bedsit with the other characters gathered on stage, established in their lonely tableaux is a deeply affecting one.
This is a memorable night at the theatre. It’s not simply a revival of an old classic; it’s a vibrant exciting and colourful interpretation of a play whose themes ring as true as ever.
Reviewer: Richard Vergette