Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘A Taste of Honey’, which is at Wolverhampton Grand until Saturday 9th November.
‘A Taste of Honey’ was drafted in two quick weeks on a borrowed typewriter by a young woman who had only been to the theatre once in her life and thought she could do better than Terrance Rattigan. 70 years later, the script still absolutely sings. And so does this National Theatre production. Literally.
Following up on a hint in Shelagh Delaney’s story that the big, brassy, forty-year-old Helen had once sung in a pub; a piano, drums and bass trio is placed in plain sight on stage to accompany the characters in a sprinkling of 1950s popular songs. They also do a fine line in edgy, percussive underscores, whenever the dynamics of the plot suggests the moment might benefit. It’s a very classy device indeed and the stripped back nature of the vast stage set allows them to remain key to the action without being unduly intrusive.
Add to all this some utterly top drawer acting, and you get a hugely memorable night of urgent, bickering, Northern drama. It’s interesting to note that this play preceded the cobbles of Coronation Street by just a couple of years and I suspect that without it, we would never have been blessed with Elsie Tanner and her tribe.
Jodie Prenger is just terrific. The part of Helen has been waiting an awfully long time for her to be available for it. Drink is an inevitable backdrop to this story, and we meet her already inebriated, dancing in her heels and slurring a song in her fine, growly blue voice. The characterisation of the bitter blond is instant. She’s hard as nails and uninterruptably verbose. Prenger builds her into a loveable monster who, nevertheless, deserves nothing better, and who you would never want for a mother in a million years.
She and her daughter are stuck in some hole of a flat with a view of the Salford gasworks and her hanky is wringing with snot. “A good man in hard to find,” she moans. And to Josephine; “When you start earning, you can start moaning”. And so, the plot is fired up and its waspish wit unleashed.
Her pairing with Gemma Dobson is also spot on. They even look like mother and daughter … with the daughter a much more nuanced character. She breaks off from family fighting to share some gentleness with Jimmy, her black sailor who has bought her a Woolworth’s engagement ring but still buggers off to sea. Needless to say, there is a pregnancy and Delaney’s description of Jo’s see-sawing attitude to her ‘bump’ is the most sensitive writing in the whole play. The scenes she shares with Durone Stokes are a slow-burning beacon of hope in a pretty wretched world.
Helen meanwhile thinks she hears wedding bells with her smoothing talking young suitor, Peter, with the eyepatch. Tom Varey exudes danger in the part. You know he can’t be trusted … and you’re right.
Delaney’s master stroke however is to introduce another male character at half time. Stuart Thompson’s ‘Geoffrey’ is a shining light in Jo’s life – and the play. Bearing in mind she was writing in the uninformed fifties; she rips up the rule book to present unsuspecting audiences with a gay man to admire. Bursting on stage to sing Coward’s ‘Mad About The Boy’, (and doing a swivel- hips Elvis impression with a floor mop) Thompson takes the seedy show by the horns and broadens the social panorama with caring grace. And so, Delaney’s suite of compelling characters is complete. It’s wonderful to watch them interact … like a piece of painful jazz.
‘A Taste of Honey’ has that unique energy of a rapidly written play, delivered at breakneck speed. You can’t take your ears off it for a second for fear of missing yet another jocular jibe. It’s great The Grand has had the guts to programme it and I truly hope the people of Wolverhampton flock to see it. The rewards are legion.
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