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Review: A Taste of Honey

Review: A Taste of Honey

Review: A Taste of Honey cover photo on Stagedoor
We’ve become accustomed to seeing classic plays reimagined from Simon Stone’s Yerma and Medea to Katie Mitchell’s takes on The Women of Troy and The Seagull. These productions make us see a familiar play through new eyes.

But more recent plays are seldom subject to the same imaginative reinvention, even though they become history plays almost as soon as they are staged. Stephen Daldry’s 1992 scrub down of An Inspector Calls (1945) and Ned Bennett’s brilliant reinvention of Equus (1973) last year are the exceptions that don’t prove the rule.

Jodie Prenger as Helen. Photos by Marc Brenner.

Bijan Sheibani’s revival of Shelagh Delaney’s astonishing 1958 play, produced when she was just 19 by Joan Littlewood, is something of a half-way house. An on-stage band, who deliver smoky jazz numbers and allow the cast to break periodically into song, release the play from realism. Music also suggests the unseen hinterlands of emotion and regret that haunt the characters, particularly Jodie Prenger’s Helen, mother to the teenage Jo (Gemma Dobson), who has never come to terms with motherhood. It does a great deal too to give depth to the character of Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson), Jo’s gay best friend who supports her when she is pregnant and alone, abandoned by her mother and her black seaman lover, Jimmie (Durone Stokes).

Gemma Dobson as Jo, Jodie Prenger as Helen, and Tom Varey as Peter.

You can clearly see that this is the same director at work as the one responsible for directing his own debut play, The Arrival, which is on at the Bush until January 18 and well worth your time and money. Sometimes the transitions are as telling as the main action which is of course invigorated by Delaney’s snappy exchanges between mother and daughter, two women stuffed with wit and potential whose futures—and those of any offspring—are confined by gender, poverty, class and race.

Delaney’s play might seem like a tick-box catalogue of late 1950s attitudes and bigotries, including those towards homosexuality, if it was not so vibrant, such a demonstrable example of the richness of female working class lives and speech. At times the dialogue almost seems to sing itself. The way the play and Prenger’s complex Helen and Dobson’s sharp, sulky Jo take up space on stage is itself a statement.

Durone Stokes as Jimmie & Gemma Dobson as Jo.

I just wish that Sheibani had gone a little further, been a little bolder. Delaney’s script is robust enough to stand further liberation. It is not a theatrical footnote and deserves its place in a canon that remains male dominated. That requires constant reinvention.

It sometimes feels, particularly in Hildegarde Bechtler’s design that is a little squeezed on the Trafalgar stage, as if the production is caught between naturalism and something more expressive, as if it recognizes the possibilities of Delaney’s play but hasn’t the nerve to really explore them. It’s a pity because Delaney’s drama is both of its time and also of our time. It deserves not just to be kept revived but kept fully alive through reinvention. Sheibani understands that but doesn’t quite grasp the nettle.

A Taste of Honey runs at Trafalgar Studios until Feb 20. You can book tickets right here on Stagedoor for the same price as going direct.

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Lyn Gardner

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