King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Some outstanding performances overcome a series of gimmicky directorial choices in the UK National Theatre’s touring production of A Taste of Honey at the King’s.
The story of how a teenaged Shelagh Delaney wrote her first play in a matter of weeks and saw it become a success in the West End, in New York and in the movies is well enough known, but remains extraordinary nevertheless.
The story of a Helen and her daughter Jo in 1950s Salford may have lost much of its original shock value but remains a beautifully structured piece, with two discrete acts that mirror and expand on each other, and some wonderfully drawn characters.
In particular, the two central parts are gifts for female performers of different ages. There are some older characters that audiences can feel better disposed to as they age, but this is not true of Helen, whose lack of any shred of maternal feeling or responsibility seems worse as the years go on.
Jodie Prenger is excellently brassy and brittle in the role, adding a vulnerability as she attempts to survive in a patriarchal society in the only ways that she can. Gemma Dobson, meanwhile, is multi-faceted as daughter Jo, excelling in particular in her scenes with Jimmie, the black sailor who leaves her pregnant, and Geof, her gay flatmate.
These storylines are thankfully no longer the taboos they once were. But then, the passage of time can do strange things – there is a whole generation who first came to Delaney through Morrissey, which may not be as fortunate a connection as it once appeared.
Geof in particular remains a tremendously well written character, and Stuart Thompson (in his theatrical debut) is believable and sympathetic. Durone Stokes gives Jimmie depth and delicacy. The toxic misogyny and barely concealed violence of Helen’s boyfriend Peter is sadly as contemporary as ever, and Tom Varey gives the character a compellingly dark energy.
Director Bijan Sheibani deserves great credit for the realism of the portrayals and the exchanges between the participants. However, some of the production is less secure. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is impressively cavernous, and attempts to get away from the Coronation Street cliches. However, its scale means it is less like a grotty flat, and more like a railway station forecourt, as the understudies mill about purposefully.
At times a warehouse club is also evoked, with a jazz piano trio onstage throughout. The music adds texture, but having Helen sing A Good Man Is Hard To Find, or Geof croon Mad About The Boy, provides a series of over-emphatic and obvious introductions.
This – like the brief dream sequences – tends to detract from the action rather than enhance it. This is never enough to undermine the play itself, which remains a vital piece of theatre. It does help give an odd tone to the production, as what could be bittersweet ends up a little on the saccharin side.
Running time 2 hours 20 minutes including one interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven St, EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 24 – Saturday 28 September 2019
Daily at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.30 pm
Information and tickets: Book here.
Stuart Thompson and Gemma Dobson. Pic Marc Brenner
A Taste of Honey on tour 2019:
24 – 28 September
0844 871 7648
1 – 5 October
The Marlowe Theatre
7 – 12 October
0844 871 7651
15 – 19 October
Grand Opera House
22 – 26 October
01162 423 595
28 October – 2 November
5 – 9 November
12 – 16 November
01603 63 00 00
On Sale Soon