A TASTE OF HONEY
ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH
What a difference half a century makes. When, in 1958, Shelagh Delaney’s debut play, A Taste of Honey, was first staged (at Stratford East, by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop), it was as if its bold portrait of working class lives in Manchester had burst, insolently, into the drawing room of a Terence Rattigan drama. Now its kitchen sink naturalism could almost be a comfortable companion piece to a play such as The Winslow Boy. Like a once rebellious teenager, Delaney’s opus has, over time, lost both its teeth and its agility.
The last five decades have ushered in gentler attitudes towards many of the play’s themes, such as mixed race relations, pregnancy outside of marriage and homosexuality. So, how does one re-energise Delaney’s piece for the 21st-century? The Lyceum is a very British repertory theatre, so there is no question of director Tony Cownie opting for a radical, continental resetting (the Schauspiel Frankfurt’s transportation of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie to a working class living room in the 1970s stays in the memory). All he can do is tweak the emotional volume on the play’s characters.
In the case of the love-hate relationship between Jo, the older-than-her-years teenager (played by Rebecca Ryan of Channel Four’s Shameless fame), and her boozy, man-hunting mother Helen (Lucy Black in an outrageous blonde wig), the result is a lighter tone than one might expect. This certainly allows for a greater degree of subtlety, not least in the characterisation of the negligent Helen. However, what this feisty theatrical pas de deux gains in nuance, it loses in bleak savagery.
There are similarly subtle performances from Adrian Decosta (as the young, black sailor who, unknowingly, leaves Jo pregnant) and Charlie Ryan (whose unerringly decent Geoffrey steers gratifyingly away from camp caricature). There is precious little scope for such delicacy in the case of Peter (Helen’s libidinous, alcoholic “fancy man”), and so Keith Fleming goes the whole demonic hog, with vile and hilarious consequences.
Although it is finely acted and well designed (in Janet Bird’s part-naturalistic, part-impressionistic revolving set), one can’t help but feel that this production is hamstrung by a combination of the passage of time and a very British insistence on faithfulness to the text. Consequently, like the play’s disappointed survivors, the audience gets only a taste of what it craves.
At the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh until February 9. For further information visit: www.lyceum.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on January 23, 2013
© Mark Brown