A Taste Of Honey (review). Still shocking after all these years.

There was a lone woman among the “angry young men” who changed the face of British drama in the 1950s.

By Anne Cox
Monday, 24th February 2014, 8:00 am
A Taste Of Honey at The National Theatre until April.
A Taste Of Honey at The National Theatre until April.

Shelagh Delaney wasn’t exactly angry, more frustrated, that the world she knew – northern working class – wasn’t represented either on stage or screen.

With the arrogance of youth (she was just 18) Delaney bashed out her first play and sent it to theatre’s (then) only working class director, Joan Littlewood, at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, in East London.

A Taste of Honey, which opened in 1958, proved shocking and controversial but to its author, it merely reflected the lives of the people she knew in the grim two-up, two-down terraces in Salford.

A Taste of Honey.

But the world was outraged. Its scenes of promiscuity, drunkenness, inter-racial sex, teen pregnancy, domestic abuse, homosexuality and parental negligence broke every taboo and only drug-taking was missing from this uncompromising, gritty drama.

Would jaded audiences of today react in the same way?

Bijan Sheibani’s revival of A Taste of Honey, which opened at The National Theatre this week, hasn’t, for a second, lost its edge. It depicts the seamier side of life on a real Coronation Street in Salford and it’s no soap.

The notoriously hard-to-please first night audience were on their feet to give it a standing ovation, not something you see every day at The NT, and their applause was tumultuous.

Which was why I was later disappointed at some of the lack-lustre reviews from our national theatre critics. I did wonder if they saw the same production as me. This is a momentous and powerfully compelling drama, superbly acted and beautifully directed.

If you ever wondered where Pat Phoenix got the bones of her character, Elsie Tanner, for Corrie, then look no further than brassy blonde single mum Helen, the tart without a heart.

Phoenix was working for Littlewood at the time it was first staged and the influence is obvious.

Lesley Sharp gives a lifetime best performance as the promiscuous, tough-talking, booze-sodden, Helen, who puts her own happiness before motherhood.

She’s sexy as hell, squeezed into tight pencil skirts and clingy tops, her bottle-blonde hair set into tight curls and is, what was called, “a good-time girl” - not quite a prostitute but the definition is blurred.

Helen drags her teenage daughter, Jo, from one dump to another, as relationships founder with a string of men.

The latest bolthole is a dank, filthy flat overlooking the slaughterhouse and gasworks where the two women share a bed. It’s about as grim as you can get.

Helen’s attempts at mothering are nonexistent and Jo has pretty much assumed the role, becoming streetwise and mature well beyond her years.

She thinks nothing about going off with her latest fella and leaving Jo to fend for herself, the schoolgirl never knowing if her mum will return.

The teenager turns to a young black sailor for comfort and later finds herself pregnant, abandoned and relying on the help of gay friend Geoffrey.

What lifts the story from a depressing kitchen sink drama is the quick-fire dialogue between the fiery Helen and equally provocative Jo.

It’s as though Delaney took a tape-recorder onto the streets and listened in on domestics taking place in her home town.

The language is tough, unemotional and shockingly realistic.

Rising star Kate O’Flynn is exceptional as the unloved and steely Jo, who, like it or not, is a chip off the old block.

There’s a verbal sparring match, with the gloves off, when both her and Sharp share a scene. They go at each other, hammer and tongs, both furious for finding themselves trapped in a life neither want or deserve.

“I never thought about you, not when I was happy,” admits Helen after abandoning her daughter for the umpteenth time.

Dean Lennox Kelly plays Helen’s spiv boyfriend, Peter, with a real menace while the only sympathetic character in the whole piece is Harry Hepple’s art student, Geoff, who aids Jo despite her abuse and insults.

It’s a towering, aggressive, performance by the entire cast and it leaves you emotionally wasted by the finale.

A Taste of Honey runs in the Lyttelton Theatre until April 5. For tickets and information contact the box office 020 7452 3000 or visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk