A Taste of Honey first opened in London in 1958 and remains tragically relevant 50 years on.
The story centres around the toxic relationship between mother and daughter, Helen and Jo. Set in the tenement slums of Salford in the late 1950s, this is the story of two women of very limited means who do what they need to survive.
As the audience enters the theatre, the actors are already on stage along with three musicians playing a piano, double bass and drums.
Jodie Prenger plays Helen, the blousy, fading mother still trying to trade on her looks and sexuality to survive. Gemma Dobson plays daughter Jo, torn between loving and hating her mother, railing against her choices and the impact they have on her, yet destined to follow in Helen’s footsteps, making the same mistakes.
As the play opens, mother and daughter are moving once again, escaping from something or someone, into another slum room. The bitching, sniping, toxic relationship between mother and daughter is really well delivered by the two actors.
The appearance of a sleazy “businessman” Peter who wants to rekindle a romance with Helen, leads to her disappearing off, leaving Jo to seek solace in the arms of sailor Jimmie (Durone Stokes) with inevitable consequences.
As twice abandoned Jo comes to terms with her reality, her gay friend Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson) moves in and provides her with possibly the only period of stability in her life, but the return of Helen threatens the delicate balance.
This play was written by Shelagh Delaney when she was just 18 and when it opened in 1958, she became the first working class female playwright. Delaney grew up in this world and her writing captures the horror and humour of the time and place. In a moving tribute by Jeanette Winterson from 2014, printed in the programme, she calls Shelagh Delaney “the start of the possible”.
In this production, the inclusion of the musicians is interesting but it gives a slightly frivolous touch which stops it from being the hard hitting, gut punching drama that it actually is. There are several segues into song that don’t go anywhere. It feels a little as if the producers, having cast Jodie Prenger (who initially came to prominence through a BBC talent show search for a Nancy for Oliver!) feel they must give her something to sing. The character of Helen is a desperate, unpleasant woman and the music and singing gives her a lightness that the character doesn’t deserve.
Jodie Prenger is excellent as Helen, she really captures the essence of this woman, hardened by life’s circumstances and still hoping for a way out. Her selfishness and cruelty are breath-taking and it is credit to Prenger that she avoids making her a caricature.
Relative newcomer Gemma Dobson really shines as Jo, showing the vulnerability beneath the learned, tough exterior.
A Taste of Honey is an enjoyable play with strong performances, but I felt it did not quite fully capture the gritty essence of the piece.
Reviewed by Emma Heath
Photo: Marc Brenner
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