Arts, Venue

A Taste of Honey: Norwich Theatre Royal


In a rush and a push, I swiftly get to my seat, my area is empty, as I’m one of the first in. As I get comfortable and take out my notepad and pen, a long-haired lady takes her seat next to me. She is intrigued by my focus and asks me am I writing for a project. I reply saying “no, it’s a review” she is still very intrigued, and then she breaks the news that her mum wrote the play. I was sat next to Charlotte, the daughter of Shelagh Delaney, who as a young teenager from Salford, made this all possible. It took me a while to comprehend what was happening. We get chatting about various things about the play, and our hopes for it. I am charmed by Charlotte’s sense of identity. Like her mother, she is proud of her humble beginnings, strong-accented, and Cockney instead of a Manc accent that I supposed. She certainly feels like an adopted Salfordian.

A Taste of Honey is a play I’ve loved for years. It is the landmark of working-class culture that still reverberates 60 years after it was written, kickstarting the new wave of British kitchen-sink realism that would include the longest-running soap, Coronation Street. Delaney gave an insight into a world of greyscale, rationing had just ended in Britain, and the cities of Salford and Manchester were mourning the tragedy of the Munich air disaster that claimed the lives of 7 Manchester United players (known as the Busby babes) including talisman, Duncan Edwards.

It was period that the river Irwell ran “the colour of lead” the words of Delaney, immortalised by another kitchen-sink admirer, Morrissey in the Smiths song “This Night Has Opened My Eyes”. Admittingly most of my knowledge of A Taste of Honey comes from Morrissey. It was a time and place where people were proud to say was about where they came from and who they were.
The play is also special because it is through the eyes of a young working-class woman, who defies social conventions and norms with the once-taboo subjects of homosexuality, teenage pregnancy, single parenthood and race, were being examined as part of a vision very different to that of the “green and pleasant land” that Britain had always regarded itself as. The play centres itself on the lives of mother and daughter, Helen and Jo, played superbly by Jodie Prenger and Gemma Dobson.

The script is full of very witty lines that demonstrate a great dynamic within their own domestic setup where the power is shared equally, the constant toing and froing between them certainly gets laughs out of the audience. The pair at times talk as if they’re best friends who fall out, make up and vice versa and not simply, mother and daughter, delivering lines that could only have come from a northern matriarch, a memorable one being “ we’re a stage of drunk drivers” and the more traditional “there are only two W’s in this life, work and want” Prenger’s delivery made it even more entertaining.

Another interesting aspect is the role of men and how they seek power and control within an all-female household. No more was this evident then the character of Peter played by Tom Varey, who played the role of crafty villain very well, in an interview prior to the performance, Varey told me of the “nasty piece of work” that Peter is. He was certainly right. I couldn’t help but think of the Oedipus complex while thinking about Peter. It was clear that while he was after Helen in more sense than one, as a source of security as well as a chance to “spend his money like water” on her.

As well as tackling gender roles and power, the play tackles the issue of race and sexuality, in the case of the characters: Jimmy and Geoffrey, played by Durone Stokes and Stuart Thompson respectfully and with a great charm, to their status as characters, Jimmy as a black sailor dropping the famous line to Jo “I dreamt about you last night – fell outa bed twice” the first muse of Jo, who against the backdrop of negative racial attitudes is not mentioned by Jo for his race a sad but all too real truth of the time and Geoffrey, the homosexual best friend of Jo, whose appearance is comical but done with great delivery.

This all done with the subtle but clever improvisation of a jazz trio on stage that does brilliantly in setting the mood, the subtle playing makes well with the course of the script as it gives a chance to oscillate wildly in the situation of the play, feeling every bit of emotion with what they utter (I promise my Smiths puns will stop). A truly clever re-addition by director: Bijan Sheibani, as throughout the years, it had been ignored by previous directors.

This adaptation is remarkable in how it delivers, Comedy, Drama and tragedy all in one, and certainly does justice to a vital piece of working-class history that by all means will be as effective and relevant as it originally was. A whole lot of fun and to quote Tom Varey, ‘a great celebration of great work.’


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Lewis Oxley

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September 2021
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