When news of Shelagh Delaney’s death hit Twitter in late 2011, it was one of the few times a theatre name has become a UK wide trending topic. Delaney’s first play, A Taste of Honey, contributed to the tectonic shift in theatre which challenged the dominant middle-class perspective when it was staged by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in 1958. Delaney’s heartfelt portrayal of the North of England is full of spirited boldness and the story of Jo, an independently-minded girl thrust into adulthood too early, has been taken into the hearts of those who first discover the play at school or university.
Though modern young people may baulk at the notion that their futures are out of their own control, the concerns of A Taste of Honey aren’t too far removed from the barriers that prevent people from fulfilling their ambitions today. BBC Three might even score a hit with My Mixed-Race Teen Pregnancy Baby’s Live-In Gay BFF...
The prejudices around gender, race and sexually that seathe under this unconventional family drama would make an interesting starting point for a modern dress retelling. Whereas the Manchester Royal Exchange used a catalogue of local hits mixed live by an onstage DJ in its 2008 production, Edinburgh’s Lyceum gives the play a more traditional treatment. The battered old brass trumpet which buzzes out some of your granny’s favourite tunes is more of nostalgic treat for older audiences than a rallying cry for the young.
But the Lyceum’s hallmarks of a quality production are all there. This is a classy presentation of a play delivered with great vibrancy from a talented cast with wicked joy to be found in Lucy Black’s performance as Jo’s acerbic mother, Helen.
Though a victim of Helen’s bullying and negligence, Jo’s sharpness to those around her make her a difficult character to like. On the rare occasions affection is offered to her, she is nippy and shoos it away. Downtrodden, she is not without strength, though this determination may be ill placed in her decisions to not stay at school or to keep her baby.
The production succeeds in conveying a strong sense of the characters’ place in society. There is a pleasingly teasing feeling that another similar story might be happening just beyond the paper thin walls of Jo’s flat.
Neighbours and landlady drift past, deep in their own business as the set revolves. The frequent revolves and semi-transparent walls of Jo’s flat create an environment where secrets don’t exist. It’s a spinning roundabout on a predetermined course.
The feeling of being cut off and isolated from the outside world is emphasised in the production’s sound design. The factory horn of the local gasworks and noisy children playing in the street creates an evocative soundscape of a society and network of support that is just out of reach.
The kitchen sink realism of this production risks nudging A Taste of Honey into the shadows of the whizz-bang fireworks of experimental performance happening on other Scottish stages. Yet with strong performances and impressive staging, it would be wrong to overlook this gold-standard production of a play that is worthy of its celebrated position and affection.
A Taste of Honey is playing at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre until 9 February. For more information and tickets visit the website: www.lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/a-taste-of-honey