A Taste of Honey

by Shelagh Delaney

Directed by Martin Buttery

November 2nd - 9th, 2002

The Tower Theatre performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury


Cast List

Helen : Karen Killaspy
Jo : Julia Main
Peter : Harry Reeder
Jimmie : Chijioke Ugoala
Geoff : Nicholas Cannon


Production Team

Director : Martin Buttery
Set Designer : Jude Chalk
Lighting Designer : Stephen Ley
Costume Designer : Kay Perversi
Sound Designer : Phillip Ley

Stage Managers : Moira McSperrin, Lesley Scarth
ASMs : Cathy Thomas, Rosalind Moore, Michael Allaway
Lighting operator : Gail Willis
Sound operator : Jacqui de Prez
Wardrobe : Kay Perversi
Scene painting : Steven Hyndman
Set construction : Robert Myer, Keith Syrett, Terry Mathews, John Sole, John Feather, Dominic Ward, Judy Carter, Roger Beaumont, Terry Baker-Self, Victoria Gerrard, Alan Nesbitt, Laurence Tuerk, Martin Layton, Colette Dockery & members of cast and crew

In-house review by Colin Smith

Before retirement, Colin Smith was a BBC Radio producer specialising in poetry and drama for schools.

Eighteen year-old Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey while she was working in an engineering factory in Salford, incensed by the prevailing typecasting of Northerners as gormless and deferential. She happened to see a minor Rattigan play, Theme and Variations, at the Manchester Opera House in 1958 and was so unimpressed that she decided that she could do better herself.

And here I have to declare a shameful sort of fellow-feeling. It was during a turgid touring production of that same piece in the same year (courtesy New Theatre, Hull) that for the first time ever - alas not not the last - I dozed off somewhere in Act One. Pace Rattigan : Ms Delaney then despatched her work to Joan Littlewood, it was reworked with extensive improvisation, cuts and rewrites by Theatre Workshop and successfully staged there, followed by transfers to the West End and Broadway. Now, seen 45 years later, how has it worn?

The basic situation in A Taste of Honey is straightforward and timeless : the tensions arising between teenage Jo, and Helen, her insensitive if wellmeaning and goodtime mother. As well as the usual mother-and-daughter friction over flat-sharing there is the question of Helen's objectons to Jo's friend and boyfriend; and as the friend is gay and the boyfriend black, the sparks fly. In 1958 the cry of "no coloureds!" was pretty standard fare, and gays of course were hellbound.

At the time it was Colin Macinnes who emphasised the revolutionary nature of Delaney's raw first effort, describing it as "the first English play I've seen in which a coloured man, and a queer boy, are presented without a nudge or a shudder. It is also the first play I can remember about working-class people that entirely escapes being a 'working-class play': no patronage, no dogma, just the thing it is, taken straight".

Setting aside some little political difficulties, the current climate is less bigoted and, on both counts, better informed. Nonetheless to modern sensibilities the last scene does begin to creak ominously. Before the dawn of Gay Pride and the Wolfenden homosexual law reforms in 196S, Jo's gay friend Geoff is demolished by Helen's hostility and creeps away unheeded. It ends, somewhat abruptly, as Helen learns that her impending grandchild may be black; worse still, after her initial reaction she passes off her hysteria with a crude joke. This should not be construed as a criticism of the author: as we have seen, Shelagh Delaney was in important respects in advance of her time. Macinnes went on to say "It gives a final overwhelming impression of good health - of a feeling for life that is positive, sensible, and generous. The dialogue is lively and the characters hold the attention throughout."

In Martin Buttery's sparky production Julia Main's Jo and Karen Killaspy's Helen fought their rounds vigorously while remaining two interdependent spirits. Helen, impulsive and self-centred, nevertheless showed moments of real affection or indulgence that filled out the characterisation, with a feeling of resignation underlying her termagant state: "All end up the same way sooner or later". Jo matched her mother in fire and fury; one could have wished for more of their quieter reflective moments, so effective by contrast. Jo's encounter with her boyfriend (Chijioke Ugoala) was sensitively handled by both actors, and Geoff, the art student who befriends Jo during her pregnancy was nicely underplayed by Nicholas Cannon in authentic-sounding Salford accents. Harry Reeder gave an assured performance as Helen's appalling boyfriend, consistently loud and aggressively drunk.

Technical support was well realised too: Jude Chalk's ingenious basement setting was cut away to reveal the outside steps to street level and the vista beyond, all lit by Stephen Ley with the art that conceals art; and Kay Perversi's costumes evoked the 1950s almost too convincingly for those who dimly remember them.

An interestingly mixed and almost full house at the Wednesday performance found this a stimulating and worthwhile revival.