Written by Shelagh Delaney
Directed by Chris Lawson
Sixty years on from it’s première at Joan Littlewood‘s Theatre Royal Stratford East Helen and Jo are doing another moonlight flit as A Taste of Honey opens at Oldham Coliseum. Traipsing through the auditorium with their flimsy suitcases and cheap coats you can almost smell the whiff of stale perfume, gin and despair as they pass. The creation of 18 year old Shelagh Delaney, this gritty Northern drama was penned in two weeks as a defiant young woman gave a voice to the women around her. Salford in the late Fifties was grim and this production speaks of the harsh reality of poverty, race and homosexuality in a post war working class community. It is a celebration of strong women making the best of their assets and getting on with life regardless of what fate chucks in their path.
Director Chris Lawson clearly has great affection for the characters and seeks out their softness and humour as well as their grit and shrewish spitefulness. Gemma Dobson plays Jo as a fresh faced, teenager with traces of childish puppyfat who may despise her mother’s lifestyle but who is quick to clumsily adopt her coquettish mannerisms. The tragedy here is a child-woman growing up too fast as she seeks out a little attention and affection in a bleak environment. Dobson nicely threads the line between childish naivety and the bleak cynicism of one who has seen too much too young. Kerrie Taylor embodies the world weary Helen with a rake thin brittleness that on occasion lights up with the seductive sinuousness of Marilyn Monroe. This good time gal is bleakly aware that her 40 year old body will only do so many times around the block before it is discarded back in the gutter. There is little likelihood of cosy, happy endings for either woman yet they both retain pride and stoicism.
The traditional men here are bluff, gruff and casually cruel like Peter who Phil Rowson plays with rakish energy as a drunken Spiv. The others who have not been to war are softer and kinder. Kenton Thomas brings a sweetness to sailor Jimmie who is charmed by Jo and her acceptance of his race but leaves without ever checking if she might be pregnant. Max Runham as the kindly art student who befriends Jo is delightful as he veers between wistfully “playing house” and desperately trying to fit into societal norms while waspishly expressing his true nature.
Sammy Dobson has created a set that perfectly evokes a grimy, Northern street. All smoky brickwork and smoggy air with an interior of peeling wallpaper and nicotine colours. The threadbare furniture sags and creaks and retains its grimness even with the glamour of Helen flitting in or out, or the occasional brightness of a bunch of conciliatory flowers. The moments when the stars glitter through the roof is a clever touch bringing hope and magic into these gutters or perhaps the poignancy of fragments of broken dreams.
The music here is another snapshot of this era of post war Britain just before the freedoms of The Sixties. The use of dance and movement to the music allows the scenes to flow and the characters to escape reality while a records spins on the turntable. Sixty years on from Delaney’s triumph there are sweeping changes in society and many of Salford’s grim back streets are gone forever. Watching the revival of this play brings cosy childhood reminders of watching black and white episodes of Coronation Street, however it is also a potent statement about today’s sanctions and the unremitting destruction of our social welfare system. If writing this play today, I imagine Delaney might have Jo and Helen at a food bank and queueing for a bed at a hostel for the homeless.
At Oldham Coliseum 25th May – 9th June
Images by Joel Chester Fildes