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A Taste Of Honey

Shelagh Delaney
The Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Lucy Black as Helen and Rebecca Ryan as Jo in A Taste Of Honey Credit: Alan McCredie
Rebecca Ryan as Jo in A Taste Of Honey Credit: Alan McCredie

A Taste of Honey was written in two weeks by Shelagh Delaney when she was just eighteen. It confronts issues of race and sexuality, which meant that it was rather shocking when it first came out in 1958. Having two working class women as the central characters also no doubt made it stand out.

Jo (Rebecca Ryan) is the headstrong daughter living with her single alcoholic mother Helen (Lucy Black) in a poky flat in Salford. It takes a while to get used to the dialogue with its extraneous little asides to the audience; once it gets going though it is quite enjoyable. Ryan in particular is great to watch and she holds the show together.

It isn't a gritty kitchen-sink-drama despite the subject matter; the tone is more towards lighthearted comedy. There is something rather Carry On about spivvy Peter (Keith Fleming) whom Helen marries and Geoffrey (Charlie Ryan), Jo's gay friend. The humour of the simple back-and-forth bitchiness between Jo and Helen still ellicits laughs from today's audience.

The play is certainly worth reviving—its taboo busting must have been quite something at the time. It can be a bit too easy to exaggerate past controversy—Men Should Weep, a more complex play centring on working class women, had come out a decade earlier and it used humour too. However that is just one example of a play from Glasgow; Delaney's two week's work undoubtedly created quite a stir in 1950s London.

The power in the play resides chiefly in the women; the men are all rather weak in different ways. Jo's black sailor (Adrian Decosta) is charming and the relationship seems quite genuine, but he doesn't stick around. Bumbling eye-patched Peter becomes something of a wreck through alcohol and Geoffrey, probably the most together of the male characters, is no match for Helen when she returns.

The costumes transport you back to the fifties, particularly when Peter's money allows Helen to invest in hats and furs. The set with its iron giders overhead meanwhile reminds us throughout of the poverty of the industrial town in which they live.

The resilience of Jo is one of the play's strengths. Not enough is really made of the ending though where Helen returns and takes control. It perhaps the fault of the play that it is rather abrupt; equally though Black as Helen could be more manipulative in her cruelty to Geoffrey and hence make for a darker ending.

A play that has dated a little, but the central character Jo as affectionately played by Ryan can still show today's society a thing or too about accepting different people.

Reviewer: Seth Ewin