Set in the 1950s, ‘working class’ Helen moves from squalid flat to squalid flat with her daughter Jo in tow. Jo has borne witness to nightly visitations from, and is perhaps traumatised by, Helen’s long list of lovers.
Helen marries one of her paramours and abandons Jo without a backward glance, admitting that she never thinks of her daughter when she is happy. Jo falls in love with Jimmy, a black sailor. Will he float away with the tide?
Right away I’ll say that this is a very special production. At the interval I found myself muttering phrases like ‘first class’ and ‘as good as it gets’. There are two extra special stars – the lovingly created set design by Mel Page and Genevieve Lemon’s performance as Helen.
Lemon is just so entertaining, so emotionally agile and subtle, and executes it all with boundless energy. When I watch a remarkable actor in full flight I can find myself thinking that there is something unusual happening, something magic, spiritual. Transcendent I suppose.
Shelagh Delaney wrote this play when she was 19 (it’s an interesting story and worth investigating). A Taste of Honey was a West End smash hit and was subsequently converted into a successful film of the same name.
Delaney became one of the leading voices of kitchen sink realism (the ironing board is front and centre in this production) and is today hailed as a transformative voice in British theatre during the 50s and 60s. She became renowned for placing lower class women and minorities into starring roles.
There’s a stimulating essay written by director Eamon Flack in the program notes which asks as many questions as it answers and gives some valuable insight into his creative process. Also in the program is a piece by Charlotte Delaney, the playwright’s daughter, in which she states that ‘It’s not that men are redundant in the lives of these women, they just aren’t essential.’
It is perhaps this aspect of the character’s attitude to life that makes A Taste of Honey feel progressive even in 2018. Everyone I spoke to on the night told me they recognised themselves, and their family and friends, amongst the dramatis personae. The verisimilitude is high. The characters are complex, gritty, and feel like they are drawn directly, and unvarnished, from real life.
You may recognise some of the lines in this play from the lyrics of Morrissey, who attributed at least fifty percent of his desire to write to the work of the playwright. The dream is gone but the baby is real.
This is a beautiful and heartbreaking production which invites you to sympathise with its protagonists, not necessarily to like them. It doesn’t propose any answers for their various plights, but drags their struggles out of the shadows, from the obscurity of the marginalised, and asks you to grapple with their humanity for a couple of hours.
A Taste of Honey
Upstairs – Belvoir Theatre, 25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills
Performance: Friday 10 August 2018
Season: 21 July – 19 August 2018
Image: Genevieve Lemon (Helen) and Taylor Ferguson (Jo) in A Taste of Honey – photo by Brett Boardman
Review: Oliver Wakelin