There’s nowhere to run and no place to hide, not in the Royal Exchange theatre’s superb and unmissable new production of Shelagh Delaney’s landmark 1958 play, A Taste of Honey.

Delaney, a working-class lass from Broughton, Salford who failed her eleven-plus, was the daughter of a Salford-born mother and an Irish father who worked on the buses. A Taste of Honey was her first play and written at the astonishingly early age of 19, and while she loved Salford and its people, she was determined to make her mark not just at home but in the wider world.

So, in April 1958, she wrote to Joan Littlewood, the ‘mother of modern theatre’, with a draft of A Taste of Honey typed on a battered old typewriter in just 10 days, and on the back of headed paper that she’d snaffled from her employer, Metropolitan-Vickers in Trafford Park.  

Littlewood liked what she saw and accepted the play for her Theatre Workshop, where it premiered on May 27, 1958. In the programme, Delaney was described as “the antithesis of London’s ‘angry young men‘. She knows what she is angry about.” And did she ever.

The play centres around the relationship between Jo (Rowan Robinson) and her mother, Helen (Jill Halfpenny). In doing so it throws working-class lives, and northern ones at that, into sharp relief without any middle-class mediation. This was unusual enough in 1958, but on top of that our Shelia also decided to throw in domestic violence, unwed motherhood, homosexuality and interracial relationships. Did I mention this was 1958?  

The production, adeptly directed by Emma Baggott, begins with Nishla Smith as the ‘jazz singer’ delivering a haunting rendition of Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town, a song deeply anchored in an ocean of hearts in Manchester. In an inspired move, ‘the jazz singer’ replaces Delaney’s original stage direction for a jazz trio, and here she is an elegant, ethereal presence, unseen by the cast (largely) but one who constantly and lovingly observes them, setting scenes and moods with her angelic voice.       

A Taste of Honey. Photo by Johan Persson.

On stage, the sparks fly and electricity crackles in the air, regularly igniting into intense lightning storms between the cast, as if they’d somehow transformed into giant, supercharged Tesla coils in human form.

Meanwhile, Jill Halfpenny delivers a powerful, sophisticated performance as Helen, Salford’s answer to Blanche DuBois, but brassier and with a tongue dipped in venom. In Halfpenny’s hands, we can’t help but like Helen, well, at least sometimes. She’s lively, funny and darkly attractive. However, she’s also selfish, self-destructive and a terrible mother. In other words, Helen can be a right bitch and she doesn’t care who knows it.

Jo, her teenage daughter, has somehow made it through her neglected childhood and is on the verge of leaving school. She’s a bright, talented and outspoken girl with a young National Serviceman as a boyfriend and a handful of books for friends. She’s also damaged, brittle, and riddled with self-doubt, which she masks with a nice line in working-class sarcasm.  

Rowan Robinson is superb in her role as Jo, who is determined to live in the moment, because that’s all she owns, that’s all she can control, or so she thinks. Time and again, Robinson succeeds in drawing in the audience, making us care desperately about what happens to Jo. In a poignant and deeply compelling performance, Robinson makes the audience long to see her character reach her potential.

Yet, hidden among the cynicism and the seemingly brick-hard hearts, there is a certain diaphanous quality to the play. Delaney captured it in her dialogue, and it’s exquisitely expressed on stage, especially by Robinson as Jo and David Moorst in his heartbreaking, first-rate performance as Geoffrey. 

In years gone by, this quality could be seen in Manchester, by the gas works wall, the old canal, and the factory gate. It was captured in oils by Pierre Adolphe Valette 30 years before Delaney was born, and is captured today in the cityscapes of the photographer Simon Buckley, also known as Not Quite Light.

And it has been captured powerfully and exquisitely by the Royal Exchange in this magnificent play.

By Alfred Searls

Main image: A Taste Of Honey. Credit: Johan Persson.

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A Taste of Honey is at the Royal Exchange until April 13, 2024. For more information, click here.