A Taste of Honey
The National Theatre’s revival of this groundbreaking play grips from start to finish.
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An unmarried mother-to-be, pregnant by her black sailor lover, forms a friendship with a young gay man, whilst her floozy of a mother elopes for financial reasons with a despicable spiv. That’s a scenario few would blink an eyelid at these days but when 19 year-old Shelagh Delaney’s debut play, A Taste of Honey, was premiered in 1958, its smorgasbord of taboo topics shocked critics and audiences alike.
Homosexuality was still illegal, and her frank and honest portrayal of gay character Geoffrey was one of the first times audiences would have come in contact with a gayer on stage, making A Taste of Honey one of the most groundbreaking plays of the day.
But fifty-odd years is a long time ago – how would Delaney’s play stand up to the test of time? Thankfully we live in more enlightened times these days, but any notion that this revival would highlight the fact that Delaney’s play was a period piece were soon dissipated by Bijan Sheibani’s minutely-detailed staging, and two thrilling performances in the two female lead roles.
Dysfunctional, co-dependent, penniless and constantly at each other’s throats Helen, and her daughter Josephine drag their sorry belongings from one set of dismal digs to the next. Helen dreams of better things, and when Peter, a rich spiv, appears on the scene she grabs the opportunity to break free of her mundane life, leaving Josephine to fend for herself.
Falling into the arms of an off-duty sailor, Jimmie, Josephine falls pregnant and strikes up an unlikely friendship with gay student Geoffrey. Helen returns on hearing about her daughter’s pregnancy, sends Geoffrey packing, and the two women return to a life of bickering and uncertainty.
As Helen, Lesley Sharpe gives the performance of her career – her withering putdowns, acerbic asides, and self-delusion are all brilliantly handled. She tears up the stage whenever she’s on it, and whilst it’s nigh impossible to make such a horrible character sympathetic, you sense that deep down she does care for her daughter, although she would never dare admit it as that would involve lowering her cast-iron defences.
As her daughter, Josephine, Kate O’Flynn plays the put upon daughter to perfection – her apparent wide-eyed innocence belies a much tougher inside, yet she accepts all the hardships that life throws at her with resilience and determination.
The supporting cast is superb, and you can almost smell the stench of damp and deprivation in Hildegard Bechtler’s designs.
A great revival of one of the most important British plays of the last century.
GT gives this a 4/5
In rep at the National Theatre until Sunday 11 May.
Info and tickets: National Theatre
Words: Keith McDonnell
Picture: Alastair Muir