‘A Taste of Honey’ review

Theatre, Drama
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
A Taste of Honey, Trafalgar Studios 2019
Photograph: Marc Brenner Gemma Dobson (Jo), Tom Varey (Peter) and Jodie Prenger (Helen)

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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The NT’s classy touring revival of the Shelagh Delaney classic captures its melancholic heart

The ‘taste of honey’ in Shelagh Delaney’s cherished play refers to the brief relationship sparked between teenager Jo (Gemma Dobson) and her sailor boyfriend, Jimmie (Durone Stokes). But it could also describe the whole of this touring National Theatre revival by Bijan Sheibani, which spills out like a sticky, sweet mess of mothers, daughters and a tiny, claustrophobic flat.

One of the best choices Sheibani has made is to avoid turning the play into a hysterical screechfest. Helen (Jodie Prenger) drags her daughter from one dank bedsit to another, uprooting her from schools and streets like a bashed-up, unwanted weed. They bicker and argue constantly – one of the brilliant things about Delaney’s script is how the women make bitchy asides about ‘she’ when the other is well within hearing distance and nobody else is present – before Helen ups and leaves with a new husband shortly after they’ve relocated once again. 

It would be tempting to play the at-each-others-throats relationship as a drawn-out screaming match. Yet the convincing thing about this bullying and neglectful, but also co-dependent, set-up is how well-worn the insults seem. A lot of the sadness of the play comes from the suggestion of being trapped in cycles of repeated mistakes, poverty, and toxic relationships.

Prenger is great as the sharp-tongued Helen, not to mention resplendent in her ’50s wiggle skirts and emerald green wedding dress. But it’s Dobson who puts in a really fascinating performance. Conventionally understood as ‘feisty’, Dobson gets the vulnerability and loneliness underwriting Jo’s gobby front.  

Sheibani’s staging features a three-piece jazz band on stage. Their bluesy, low-rumbling score adds to the slow-build feel of the production. The stage is also crammed with in-costume stagehands/performers who move the scenery and reassemble the frequently trashed rooms. It kind of feels like too much is going on, although it does hint well at the idea of a life lived in cramped conditions surrounded by so many other families and people. The great sadness is how, apart from Jo’s gay best friend Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson) who Helen chases out, the two women end up having only each other. 

By: Rosemary Waugh

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