‘I dreamt about you last night… I fell out of bed twice.’
It’s fun to play Smiths lyric bingo with Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play – Morrissey freely admits to plundering inspiration from the kitchen sink masterpiece that Delaney wrote aged 19.
It’s also instructive of how ‘A Taste of Honey’s place in our culture has changed: from shocking depiction of a single mother’s struggles on a Salford estate to a touchstone portrayal of working-class life that feels as romantic as it does gritty.
Nobody is more aware of this than director Bijan Sheibani, who frames his revival through a wantonly nostalgic lens. Watery ‘Corrie’ brass cradles every scene, the red-brick exteriors of Hildegard Bechtler’s set are LS Lowry perfect, and the fire curtain has been done up to look like a dreamy ’50s film poster.
It’s never cartoonish, but it’s never oppressively bleak. Rather this version is a bright, robust vehicle for two bright, robust performances. Lesley Sharp is incandescent as Helen, the feckless, selfish, girlish single mum who leaves her pregnant schoolgirl daughter Jo in the lurch to run off with monied arsehole Peter (Dean Lennox Kelly). Kate O’Flynn is equally impressive as the contrarian Jo: bolshy, shy, witty, fragile and plain eccentric as she struggles to cope with abandonment by both mother and lover (Eric Kofi Abrefa’s sweet Jimmie) and forms an unconventional relationship with gay art student Geoffrey (Harry Hepple).
It really is about the two women, though. Sharp is magnetically appalling and O’Flynn is in danger of turning into her clone. Yet they tear strips off each other tenderly – luminous, vital and rarely unsympathetic, trying their best to cope with a world that has little time for single women. And the late Delaney wrote fabulously, the women’s conversation clashing, rebounding and firing off at erratic angles as Helen’s almost sociopathic self-absorption and Jo’s wild mood swings collide, pyrotechnically, hilariously. Sharp’s vowels are richly elongated and slurred; O’Flynn’s ping along, small, hard, precise.
Does it all come across as a bit exaggerated? Absolutely, but that works in a production that serves as a celebration – of human spirit and of working-class heritage. There is indeed a light that never goes out.
It all felt a bit too exaggerated and caricatured on the part of all of the actors except for Harry Hepple and his portrayal of Geoff. Hepple played with a subtlety and "less is more" feel that worked extremely well. The scenery was enough to evoke the feel of poverty but the dancing around at scene changes could have been omitted as it gave a contradictory jollity where none was needed. The costumes were great as was the jazz music. Would be interesting to see a performance with the understudies' interpretation of the roles. Worth seeing as it is an iconic play that is rarely performed in London.
Kate O'Flynn as Jo and Lesley Sharp as Helen are both fantastic! They match each other in strength and bring a huge energy to the stage. Their exchanges are exciting and heartbreaking. We really enjoyed this play, the pace is right, the costumes are beautiful and the music quickly creates their world. Would highly recommend! Feels like you are watching two actors at the top of their game. Jo: I hope to be dead and buried by the time I reach your age. Just think you've been living for forty years. Helen: I know, I must be a biological phenomenon. Jo: You don't look forty. You look a sort of well-preserved sixty.
Heartachingly brilliant. The performances stay in your mind long after the curtain falls. A memorable piece of theatre.