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A Taste of Honey

Shelagh Delaney
Theatre Royal, York
(2004)

A Taste of Honey occupies a rather strange place in British theatrical history. The first play by a teenage girl from Salford, it not only brought Joan Littlewood's struggling Theatre Workshop back from the brink but also broke new ground in its sympathetic portrayal of a young working-class heroine, a gay man and an interracial romance. Hugely successful runs in the West End and on Broadway, plus the popular film starring Rita Tushingham, made the play into one of the cultural icons of 60s Britain. 46 years after its premiere it is now an established school text, studied alongside the work of Shakespeare. Yet Shelagh Delaney, if not exactly a one-hit wonder, never wrote anything else of comparable impact and the play is now very much a period piece - the period before television would have devoured the entire plot in a half-hour soap episode.

Not that there is anything wrong with period pieces, certainly not in the capable hands of director Damien Cruden and designer Dawn Allsop. The seediness and grime of a Northern city in the late 50s are vividly brought to life in a set featuring a cobbled street complete with staircase and manhole cover, lines of grubby washing and the squalid flat shared by young Jo and her prostitute mother Helen. Fans of the 1961 film will probably be surprised by the sheer theatricality of the play - characters address the audience directly and break into song and dance when the spirit moves them, the set is cleverly lit to suggest a nightclub atmosphere at appropriate moments, and we never for a moment mistake the play for the kitchen-sink drama of its era (which perhaps explains why the black and gay characters are remarkable for their inclusion, not for any revolutionary insights into their lives). Although there were moments when I found the pace a little slow, Cruden generally keeps the drama bowling along and makes the most of the semi-musical aspects.

The stormy relationship between the blowzy Helen and her sensitive daughter Jo is at the heart of the drama, and I wonder if I was the only audience member who was constantly reminded of another mother/daughter play - namely The Rise and Fall of Little Voice? There were times when Katherine Dow Blyton's Helen, dressed to the nines in pursuit of yet another ghastly boyfriend, brought back memories of Julie Walters in the film version. Blyton is a familiar face at the Royal and here she gives yet another memorable performance as the hopelessly feckless but undaunted mother, setting an awful example to her daughter but hoping she won't follow it. Helen Rutter is totally convincing as the teenage Jo, simultaneously a neglected child and an outspoken young woman capable of provoking her slimy stepfather-to-be (Mark White, who also choreographed the show). Cornelius Macarthy gives a captivating performance as Jo's boyfriend Jim - one feels that, even in the overtly racist 50s, only a heart of stone could have resisted such a charmer - and Glyn Williams shines as the kindly gay art student who befriends the pregnant and abandoned Jo.

All in all another fine production from the Theatre Royal, and further proof that regional theatre is alive and well.

"A Taste of Honey" runs until 3rd April

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson