Words: William Cohn
Returning to the West End for the first time in 60 years, the National Theatre’s adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey is a brilliant depiction of the push-and-pull that comes between reality and desiring more, pulsating with social issues that remain relevant today.
The long-overdue revival offers a powerful portrayal of 1950s working-class life in the north of England as we meet the formidable Helen, marvellously played by Jodie Prenger, winner of BBC musical singing contest I’d Do Anything back in 2008, who has just moved into a flat in a gritty part of Manchester with her daughter Jo.
Jo – a riveting performance by Gemma Dobson – criticises the state of their new digs, setting into motion the underlining theme of wanting a better life, yet often succumbing to the familiar template of dysfunction instead.
The constant squabbling between the two is both light-hearted and melancholic, but the plot kicks into another gear when things heat up between Helen and her love interest, car salesman Peter. At the same time, Jo is proposed to by a sailor named Jimmy.
This is where the social issues that gnawed at Shelagh – who wrote A Taste of Honey when she was just 19 – really come to the fore as a light is shone on issues faced by the gay and black communities in post-war Britain that weren’t addressed at the time.
And they still touch a nerve in director Bijan Sheibani’s poignant production at London’s Trafalgar Studios.
Jo cannot bear to tell Helen that she she proposed to, let alone by a black man, and she keeps her relationship a secret.
The end of act one sees Helen abandon Jo to live with Peter, making room in Jo’s life for Geoff, a queer artist who is afraid to tell her that he is gay – homosexuality in Britain and Wales was only decriminalised in 1967.
Characters question their place in the world and in each other’s lives, dilemmas played out to a jazz-infused score by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell and an on-stage band that brings to life the silky, soulful musical numbers.
Delivering a thought-provoking dissection of social issues that marginalised communities continue to wrestle with now, A Taste of Honey is a timeless story that engages the audience from start to finish.
A Taste of Honey is at Trafalgar Studios, London, until 29 February 2020. For great deals on tickets and shows click here.
Images: Marc Brenner