Tom Varey is an actor credited to the screen more than the stage. The actor from Ashton Under-Lyne, Manchester has been accredited roles in everything from Channel 4 dramas: Ackley Bridge and No Offence to Game of Thrones. In his latest venture, Varey returns to the stage and back to familiar ground to Salford, in a brand-new adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s kitchen-sink epic: A Taste of Honey. It stops by the Theatre Royal on 12th November. Alongside Varey, stars musicals sweetheart: Jodie Prenger, famed for her appearances as Nancy in the multi-Tony-winning musical, Oliver! She plays the lead matriarch, Helen, the self-centred mother of the female protagonist, Jo, a 17-year-old girl (trapped between a rock and a hard place in a rough environment of working-class Salford). It premiered back in September at Salford’s famous Lowry theatre.
A Taste of Honey is arguably seen as the breakthrough of working-class Northern England being represented in post-war British society, never before had working-class people had their daily lives and troubles being shared in popular culture. Written when Delaney was only a teenager, the play deals with very difficult themes that were considered social taboo. The initial success of the play soon got the attention of the film industry, and it was dramatised into a film in 1961 by Tony Richardson. It made the BFI’s top 100 of British films in 1999.
I begin by asking him about the play and his character. Varey plays the nasty, crafty car salesman, Peter Smith, who Varey tells me is “definitely a villain”, and in a particular part, Varey describes him to be “racist” and “homophobic” “a nasty piece of work”. I ask whether Peter could be described as the classic “Soap villain” something that surely would have influenced the lineage of soap villains particularly with Salford the home of Coronation Street. Varey seems very intrigued in playing a strong villain with all the traits, and he says he wants to find “what makes them that way. I don’t think someone is naturally that evil” he adds that it is great as you can “have a bit of fun and find out what makes them that way”. Empathy is an important part of character portrayal, and Varey is keen on letting that seep through in his portrayal of Peter and finding out what are his insecurities reveal.
As A Taste of Honey has been seen as one of the ground-breaking works in recent British Theatre, we delve into the legacy of the play and the figure of influence that Delaney became. The Salfordian playwright was just 19 when it debuted in 1958, and its depiction of working-class Northern England was a familiar hit with audiences who were having their world described, even though the play was not well received when it debuted. It’s, and her legacy has reached the likes from the likes of Jeanette Winterson to Morrissey; it’s clear the influence that Delaney had on fellow Mancunian’s.
Varey hopes that by taking the play back out to new places, the new production of the play will bring back people (especially working-class people) into theatre, and feel it is something to be a part of. He hopes that people “come along and are inspired by it” as “[after] all it was not only wrote by someone who was working class but also, a young working-class woman”. He adds that the play has been added to “a lot of exam papers” as well as “school kids on trips” he concludes that “the more working-class faces, the better”.
As an actor who has starred in situated working-class dramas, Varey is no stranger to their appeal and to why he wanted to star in them. He confesses that he tends to play more “working-class characters in the North, an area which I love” The intended audience at the time, Varey says were more accepting as “to spoke to their world, the one they know” he jokily adds “even though Downton Abbey is great it still alienates a large part of working-class audiences from the theatre. But he also hopes that with times having changed, that this production [A Taste of Honey] will be “a great celebration of a great work.”
I finally ask him about the director of the new play and what their aims were, more specifically if they deviated or had, kept to the original script that Shelagh Delaney wrote 60 years previously. Varey tells me that “[parts of] the original script had been faded over the years” a key element he tells me about is the emphasis or the more direct appeal to music as well as the drama of the play. One such item, Varey says, was the original inclusion of a Jazz trio in Delaney’s original that has come back, Varey adds that [he hopes] it creates more of a “dreamlike feeling when you watch the play” and so help revisit various elements that keep to the original and emphasis different thing in the play that wasn’t before. He certainly agrees that the play is “aided by having the music elements” he adds “it was certainly fun to try and just a lot of fun really”. The element of singing in clubs is a reoccurring thing, and Varey, like so many others in the North he says “are brought up on that sort of thing”. He hopes the singing will make it more accessible to members of the audience and hope that working-class theatre can inspire and thrive again.
A Taste of Honey is on at the Theatre Royal on Tues 12th November.