62 years later, Shelagh Delaney’s play about motherhood, love and discrimination still packs a punch. In the recent co-production between the National Theatre and Trafalgar Studios, music is the honey that binds the story together, but the music used to smooth the edges of Delaney’s script leave a sweet taste in the mouth that sticks for longer than I’d like.
While objectively slick, Sheibani’s A Taste Of Honey feels like a watered down, less angry version of Delaney’s script; I wouldn’t say he goes so far as to romanticise the poverty onstage, but it feels like it is trying to make this aggressively socialist play appeal to the primarily middle-class West End audience by softening it with a bit of light music. Frankly, I question whether it is necessary to allow a male director to strip the first major Angry Young Woman play of it’s anger in the first place. In a play with a socialist message very much at its heart, undercutting the moments that should make us feel angry rather than sad with mournful, jazzy singing undermines the potency of Delaney’s words. In a way, I’m sort of impressed that this production has almost succeeded in taming such a radical script. Impressed, or offended, I’m not sure.
Delaney’s script was iconic for being what was considered the first ‘angry young woman’ play in a world full of angry young men, and it still has an awful lot of relevance today, particularly in our current political climate – it is a play that should leave it’s audience feeling furious at the society that has failed these people, not one that has them tapping along to ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’. Although the music works when underscoring dialogue, having characters introduce themselves through song doesn’t particularly add anything to the script. I mean, we don’t need to hear Geoff do a full routine to ‘Mad About The Boy’ to understand that yes, just in case we needed it spelling out for us, he is gay.
There are moments where the singing works, however, there are other moments which feel more like musical theatre than anything else. I could see why it makes sense for Jimmie (Durone Strokes) to sing to Jo (Gemma Dobson) because his gentle voice provides a contrast to the horrid sounds of Jo and Helen’s flat. However, most of the songs seem to be there simply to cover transitions or dilute the harshness that is at the very core of the script; even the gloriously blunt opening line of the play is watered down with an out-of-place musical number.
Love or loathe the singing, I cannot deny that Jodie Prenger is impressive as Helen, and although I question some of his choices, Sheibani has certainly brought out the best in his actors; Dobson’s Jo and Stroke’s Jimmie have undeniable chemistry, and the relationship between Jo and Stuart Thompson’s Geoff drips with a snappy, twisted kind of affection. Although Prenger’s accent does occasionally dip into something vaguely Essex-sounding, the relationship between mother and daughter is entirely believable and, despite it’s obvious toxicity, strangely heart-warming. The moment where Helen tells Jo about the love affair she had with Jo’s father, a man with ‘strange eyes’, gives me chills.
Overall, it’s an objectively good show; the production is slick, the design is polished and it is, to be frank, exactly what you’d expect from a big budget West End play. But that’s the problem: it feels sanitised, like somebody took Delaney’s scrappy, harsh slice of life and smoothed out all of the rough edges. This isn’t A Taste Of Honey, it’s coated in it.
A Taste Of Honey is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 29 February. For more information and tickets, visit the National Theatre website.