“A taste of hunneee, tasting much sweeter than wine, de doom de doo, bah-doom, de doom de doo etc.” That’s how it went, as I remember. I was only a child but the song, made famous by the movie and written for the Broadway version of the West End transfer of the Stratford East production, was a cultural icon of the late 1950s and early 60s. Despite a lukewarm critical reception for the first production, the film won several awards. It’s safe to say that Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey cemented its position in the national consciousness.
So, let’s get the critical bit out of the way. This is a good production. The acting is uniformly excellent, the direction is clear, and the designer has done a decent job of re-creating a dingy Salford tenement circa 1959. And if you want to see a play which reifies Larkin’s famous line ‘man hands on misery to man’, then this is it.
Jo, an adolescent schoolgirl (Gemma Dobson), has been dragged across Salford to a new flat by her mother Helen (Kerrie Taylor), a woman whose income depends entirely on her looks and ability to please men, in order to escape the advances of Peter (Phil Rowson), one of her customers. Helen is a bully and endlessly criticises Jo, who has learnt to give as good as she gets but is clearly desperate to be loved.
Spoiler Alert. Peter turns up at the flat and asks Helen to marry him so off she goes, abandoning Jo, who turns to Jimmie (Kenton Thomas), a boy she has met on the way home from school. He’s a sailor on National Service and he’s black.
Act Two begins with Jo, now obviously pregnant, living alone in the flat when her friend Geoffrey (Max Runham), a gay art student, arrives. He has quit his old lodgings rather precipitately and needs somewhere to stay, so he gets the sofa. Geoffrey offers Jo tenderness and love, but she rejects him. Her inability to respond is nothing to do with his homosexuality, something which she explicitly acknowledges and clearly doesn’t bother her, but more a failure to know how to accept such an offer. Then Helen returns.
Shelagh Delaney wrote the play in 1958 when she was a 19-year-old secretary as a response to seeing a play by Terence Rattigan which she felt dealt unfairly with homosexuality. It’s an extraordinary first play, not only because of her terrific ear but because it featured a pregnant underage schoolgirl now referred to everywhere as 17 but, to audiences then, obviously 14 or 15. In those days you left school at 15. She is not only underage but unmarried, and a white girl having a baby by a black father. And the most sympathetic, reasonable character in the play, the only one we empathise with is Geoffrey, whose sexuality was illegal at the time.
Watching the play, I was reminded of another first play by a 19-year-old working class woman set in the North – Rita, Sue and Bob Too which I reviewed at Bolton Octagon last year. I was reminded not least because Gemma Dobson also played Sue in that production. She was good in that, her first job, but she’s learnt a lot and she was brilliant in this – with luck she’ll have a great career. The plays have other things in common, in particular a bleak view of working class life. Having said that, while Rita Sue is rooted in 70s unemployment, Delaney’s play evokes the world of impoverished post-war Britain.
They are both plays of their time, and have little to say to us now, but they draw audiences. I saw the Delaney on a Wednesday night and the house was fairly full. Hoorah. I hope the Coliseum is humming all the way to the bank: “de doom de doo, bah-dooom de doom de doo”.
A Taste of Honey is on at Oldham Coliseum Theatre until June 9, 2018. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.