English playwright and screenwriter Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey at the age of 19. After seeing a production of Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme in Manchester, Delaney thought that she could do better and, after only two weeks, had penned A Taste of Honey.
Delaney’s debut play had its premiere in northwestern England in 1958, later becoming a West End hit. In 2011, The Guardian’s Dennis Barker described it as “one of the defining plays of the 1950s working-class and feminist cultural movements”. Delaney was credited with having foregrounded the plight of lower-class women and minorities, depicting them as real, multi-dimensional human beings. The work was ahead of its time and compared to John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which had arrived on stage only a couple of years earlier. Delaney herself was compared to the “angry young men” like Osborne who, in the words of The New York Times’ Bruce Weber, were “rejecting the traditional reserve and gentility of British high culture”.
Though Delaney went on to write other plays and enjoyed a successful career writing for film, television radio and print, A Taste of Honey is the piece for which she is best remembered. In the year of its 60thanniversary, a new production, directed by Eamon Flack, has arrived on stage at Belvoir.
Set in industrial northwestern England of the 1950s, A Taste of Honey tells the story of Jo (Taylor Ferguson), a sharp but recalcitrant teenager living in a decaying room in a lodging house with her mother, Helen (Genevieve Lemon). Helen is flighty and lacks maternal instincts; she is prone to casting her daughter’s needs aside in favour of romantic relationships and more comfortable living. Here, we see her leave Jo to fend for herself as she pursues slimy and self-assured car salesman, Peter (Josh McConville).
Jo begins an interracial relationship with Jimmie (Thuso Lekwape), a sailor, who ultimately leaves her on her own to deal with the pregnancy. She then meets Geoffrey (Tom Anson Mesker), a young art student who’s been evicted from his home for being gay. He moves in with Jo, and the pair establishes an unconventional household that appears to work for both of them. But any sense of so-called normalcy is short-lived, as Jo finds her life upheaved once again by Helen’s return.
Flack’s is a wonderful production of Delaney’s bleak and unsentimental play about two strong women and their search for a slice of happiness where it’s pretty hard to come by. Given Delaney’s drawing of fully-fledged working-class women, her inclusion of a gay character and her delving into interracial relationships, it’s little wonder she’s regarded as somewhat of a pioneer.
Flack has assembled a fine cast to bring Delaney’s multifaceted characters to life. Ferguson delivers a first-class performance as the spirited teen who has to grow up too quickly and without the support she requires. Australian theatre stalwart Lemon is excellent as the largely self-consumed Helen, who shows only glimpses of motherly concern. McConville meanwhile is suitably repugnant as her lover, Peter, whose drinking exposes a belligerent man with no respect for women.
Mesker’s Geoffrey is a picture of melancholy; the character is an openly gay young man, alive at a time and in a place with no tolerance of homosexuality. Mesker portrays with pathos a person who has resolved to conform to societal expectations as much as he is able, creating a home unit with Jo in pursuit of such purpose. And while Lekwape’s appearance in A Taste of Honey is fleeting, his performance as the sailor makes this a uniformly strong ensemble.
Mel Page’s set is a thoroughly realised recreation of a decrepit and grimy rented room in a lodging house, authentically locating us in Jo’s and Helen’s world. A high attention to detail is also reflected in the costuming. Effective and impressive dance content by Kate Champion has been thoughtfully woven into the production and Stefan Gregory’s decisions as to compositions to underscore the piece are well judged.
Sixty years on from its first outing, A Taste of Honey remains deserving of a place on our stages, and Flack has created a deferential and enthralling treatment of Delaney’s landmark work that highlights the insuperable barriers that often stand in the way of people’s prospects of happiness.
A TASTE OF HONEY – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 19 August, 2018
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444