Gemma Dobson (Jo), Tom Varey (Peter) and Jodie Prenger (Helen) in A Taste of Honey. Photo: Marc Brenner
Set in the North West in the 1950s, Shelagh Delaney’s early ‘Kitchen Sink’ drama – written when she was only nineteen – received high acclaim when the National Theatre produced its re-imagined version five years ago. So much so that this year’s revival is now in the middle of a mini-tour before transferring to the West End at the Trafalgar Studios in December. This week the classic drama plays at Richmond Theatre.
With the subject-matter of race, gender, teenage pregnancy, class and prejudice at its heart, the drama starkly indicates just how ahead of her time Delany was.
Jodie Prenger follows up her own run of impressive dramatic performances in Shirley Valentine and Abigail’s Party by taking on the iconic role of the morally bankrupt Helen. What’s more the inspired inclusion of an onstage three-piece smoky-jazz band – led by David O’Brien – lets the singer side of Prenger comfortably front a collection of tuneful vocal interludes, including opening the show.
The play is actually centred around Helen’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Jo, who – with her mother – moves into a run-down flat in Salford. Hildegard Bechtlet’s ramshackle design effectively reflects the flat’s dark and dank surroundings… you can almost smell it. I love the way the entire company, understudies and all, assist in moving the set around between scenes.
Helen, who doesn’t stop talking, is very quick to preach to her daughter of how to get off her backside and live her life but, at the same time, is extremely promiscuous herself – going from one partner to another. After the interval, we see that Helen has abandoned Jo to go and live with the chauvinistic and bullying Peter, who has plenty of money. Meanwhile, back at the flat, Jo has been made pregnant by her black sailor-boyfriend, Jimmie, now nowhere to be seen. Desperate, Jo lets her gay friend, Geoffrey move in for a few nights. However, in a time when homosexuality was still illegal, a few nights turns into months as Geoffrey is drawn to the safety of Jo’s home – and predicament.
Of course things don’t work out between Helen and Peter and the outrageous mother is soon back on Jo’s doorstep, making the excuse of wanting to help her daughter through the birth of her child. That is until she finds out that Jo’s baby has a black father – by which time Helen has already driven away Geoffrey in a shocking homophobic outburst. The play ends with Helen walking out on Jo, unable to face the ‘scandal’ of being lumbered with bringing up a mixed-race baby in 50s Britain. How times have changed – for the better!
Five years ago Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn played mother and daughter, but the inclusion of Jodie Prenger and Gemma Dobson into the revival's cast definitely adds an extra Northern air of reality to the drama.
Gemma Dobson gives a strong account of herself as Jo, who can give as good as she gets when it comes to arguing with Prenger’s wildly selfish Helen (Jo even calls her mother ‘Helen’ instead of ‘mum’). In general, the cast’s Salford accents (think Coronation Street) is pretty spot on as director, Bijan Sheibani, skilfully lays the community’s depravation out for all to see. Poverty was instrumental in causing many a shocking social outcome sixty years ago – and this play unquestionably tells the gritty truth. The question for us is: have we learned our lesson?
A Taste of Honey tours the UK until it transfers to the Trafalgar Studios from 5 December 2019 – 29 February 2020.
More at: trafalgar-studios.com/shows/a-taste-of-honey
Durone Stokes (Jimmie) and Gemma Dobson (Jo) in A Taste of Honey. Photo: Marc Brenner