This provocative play by then 19-year-old writer Shelagh Delaney became the West End's hottest ticket in 1958
The story behind Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey is truly extraordinary. Delaney grew up working class and surrounded by poverty in Salford, Manchester. When she was a 19-year-old theatre usher she decided to try her hand at playwriting. According to her daughter, Delaney had just seen Waiting for Godot and believed there were other voices that should be heard.
The resulting play was an absolute smash, moving from the fringe venues to illustrious stages on the West End and Broadway, and was eventually turned into a BAFTA-winning film. It’s an extraordinary portrait of life on the fringes – of people who are simply denied the space to live in society – carving out their own lives and families, and dealing with their own pain with strength and true grit.
Yet despite this, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more confused opening night audience at Belvoir, struggling to know how to take a play that’s by turns tragic and bitingly funny, and refuses to deliver the kind of dramatic shape you’d generally expect from a kitchen sink drama. That it refuses to paint its women as archetypes – instead they’re genuinely knotty, complex, capricious and tough – is still relatively unusual on our stages. That it shows women who follow their sexual desire, and casts no moral judgement upon them, is almost entirely unheard of.
Despite its radical content, the play’s narrative is fairly easy to follow: a 17-year-old woman, Jo (Taylor Ferguson), and her mother, Helen (Genevieve Lemon), move into a tiny ramshackle flat. Helen doesn’t have the strongest maternal instincts and soon flits off to marry and live with a younger man she’s just met (Josh McConville). At the same time, Jo strikes up a sexual relationship with Jimmie (Thuso Lekwape), a black sailor who leaves her pregnant. Jo eventually meets a young gay art student, Geoffrey (Tom Anson Mesker), who’s been kicked out of his own flat as a result of his sexuality. The pair move in together and both find something they desperately need in one another as Jo’s pregnancy progresses.
Delaney’s play sits both parallel and in opposition to the “angry young men” that were the hottest thing in British drama at the time. Those men were disillusioned by Britain’s social and class structures, but Delaney’s anger extends beyond class and focuses on Britain’s misogyny, homophobia and white supremacy. The program note for the original production of A Taste of Honey said: “she is the antithesis of London’s ‘angry young men’. She knows what she is angry about.”
The most famous work from the “angry young men” canon, Look Back in Anger, famously shocked audiences by showing an ironing board on stage. Director Eamon Flack has also put an ironing board on stage in this production, but it’s Geoffrey who uses it – as a table for his sewing – and not either of the women, who refuse to take on a homemaker role.
Delaney’s play doesn’t feel like it’s burning with anger; instead, it’s propelled by fine character detail and beautifully observed relationships. Flack and his cast have made the absolute most of this and make consistently unexpected and lively choices.
Jo and Helen burst brilliantly to life with Taylor Ferguson and Genevieve Lemon in these roles. Their relationship is palpable, as is the way they’ve absorbed and been shaped by one another. As Jo discovers she’s pregnant, she struggles to know what motherhood might mean for her. She clearly doesn’t want to be the kind of mother Helen was, but finds herself falling into similar patterns. Both actors have a hugely difficult job given that these women don’t fit into any box, and both give them the dignity of that complexity.
Thuso Lekwape and Tom Anson Mesker are both excellent as the men who can’t measure up to Jo’s needs, and Josh McConville is appropriately domineering and dangerous as Peter. When he shows up in the second act, he fills the room like a bad smell, and the other characters on stage shrink in necessary submission.
Designer Mel Page has created the perfect run-down flat; it’s so shabby and filthy you imagine you could leave the theatre with dirt under your fingernails. The original production of the play featured a live jazz band on stage and while Belvoir hasn’t gone that far, they’ve brought in choreographer Kate Champion as movement director for some smart and stylish character-driven physical scene transitions, set to a jazz soundtrack composed by Stefan Gregory.
Specific details about how society is structured might’ve changed since Delaney was writing, but the characters feel utterly contemporary. Delaney paints their struggles without any sentimentality, and you can still hear her voice calling across the decades, demanding something better for people on the fringes, and celebrating their defiance.