Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey was a landmark in British theatre – one of the ‘kitchen sink’ dramas that revolutionised theatre as an art form – and drew on issues of race, class and sexuality that were both incredibly contemporary and controversial for a piece written in the late 50s. It’s also a play that’s stood the test of time and lately seems to be being acted out up and down the country. Its latest re-staging stars actress Rebecca Ryan as the gutsy lead, Jo.
Like the play, Ryan is Manchester-born and this isn’t her first time taking the lead in Delaney’s debut script. “I actually did it last year in Edinburgh, which was fantastic…” she explains. “It’s just a fantastic play. And I heard they were doing it again at Hull Truck so I was really excited to go and audition for it again.”
It has to be questioned whether a play written more than 50 years ago is still going to resonate with a modern audience, but Ryan makes a strong case for it. “I think it’s one of those plays that is always there. I think it’s always relevant. It’s got everything that a great play should have, I think… it’s gritty, it’s funny, it’s tender, it’s got all these different elements in it.” It’s also got a lot of big issues in it that, unfortunately, are still big issues today. Ryan certainly thinks that the homophobic and racist attitudes of characters in the ply still ring true today, and that “when you think how much we’ve moved on, it’s sad to think that there’s still stigma attached to things like that today”. That said if she had to pick out one area of the play that’s at the heart of things, it’s “the relationships between each of the characters that are really important”.
Any play with as many elements at this one has to be an exciting challenge for actors, and Ryan’s Jo is by no means a one-dimensional character. From the complex mother-daughter relationship at the centre of the play, to her determination to live independently, to her erratic mood swings, she’s no walk in the park. “She’s a very feisty character. I think that the thing for me is she’s very up and down. One minute she’s happy and she’s great, and the next minute she’s angry. She goes up and down and up and down. That’s really exciting for me to play – to get those moments when one minute, sort of within a line, she’s goes from being really happy and really great to being just really angry and really frustrated. That’s a challenge in itself to try and get those moments right.” Every actor puts a little something of their own style into a character – some more than others – and I’m looking forward to seeing Ryan’s Jo on stage and seeing what she can bring to the classic character.
Acting on stage is a very different challenge to acting for television, and one that throws up a whole new set of questions” “I do think it’s slightly harder…” Ryan says. “In the fact that, you know, you can’t mess up.” TV has the handy option of re-shooting a scene, but on stage it’s all or nothing and any mistakes have to be quickly covered up with a bit of clever improvisation. It’s added pressure, but it’s also added excitement. According to Ryan, “it’s completely different. It’s really great fun being live in a theatre because you get that sort of instant buzz form the audience – that excitement. That sort of buzz that you get when you know you’ve just got one chance to get it right and anything can go wrong…” It may sound terrifying but there’s a thrill to be had from seeing a live audience responding and reacting to a story right then and there, “it’s really great to be able to see the audience! And get their feedback straight away which I love!”
Ryan began acting at an early age in the BBC’s The State of Play. She auditioned with her brother and the two were cast together as sibling characters. The show’s writer invited her to audition for his next show – Shameless – and on she went from there. But she’ll be the first to tell you that acting’s not an easy game, and for young people trying to break in it’s as hard as it’s ever been. “I think it’s always hard,” she admits. “I think the hard thing is, even for me now, just not knowing what’s coming next or what you’re going to go onto – or if there is anything else. You know, you’re very much in the hands of someone else… So I think it’s really hard to have a clear task on what you want to do when you’re not really sure when your next part, or your next stuff, is going to come up. I think it’s really hard.”
Her advice though? Stick at it. “Just don’t give up, I suppose…” she says. “I just think if it’s something that you’re really really passionate about and you really want to do – don’t give up.”
A Taste of Honey is at Hull Truck from 27 March to 19 April. For more information and tickets, visit Hull Truck’s website.