Shelagh Delaney’s debut play, written in her late teens, is often lumped in with the so-called “kitchen sink” dramas.
It never really was one. It’s gritty, certainly, and almost revels in the seamy side of life for working class women’s lives in the late 1950s. But Delaney always makes you aware you are watching a play, not spying through someone’s window. Like its mother-and-daughter leads, Helen and Jo, A Taste of Honey refuses to conform to conventions.
Written when Delaney was in her late teens, A Taste of Honey broke new ground by treating poverty, sex, interracial relationships, teenage pregnancy and homosexuality not as issues but as part of everyday life. What’s more, Delany treated all of it with a kind of bratty irreverence.
Nearly 60 years after its debut, A Taste of Honey’s openness and nonchalant humour are its chief redeeming features, keeping the play feeling more buoyant than others of its era (Look Back in Anger, for instance).
Otherwise faithful to Delaney’s late 1950s setting, Eamon Flack’s production transplants Delany’s portrait of a fractious mother-daughter relationship from the grimy terraces of Salford, Lancashire to the backstreets of inner city Sydney and the latest in a series of gimcrack bedsits for garrulous, middle-aged Helen (Genevieve Lemon) and the rebellious 16-year-old Jo (Taylor Ferguson).
It’s not much (no heating and a communal bathroom) but it will do until something else comes up, says Helen. That “something else” is invariably a man and one comes up very quickly in the form of Peter (Josh McConville), a boozy one-eyed salesman with a soft spot for mature women.
In no time, Peter proposes, Helen accepts, and Jo is left to her own devices and the exuberant charms of Jimmie, the young African seaman (Thuso Lekwape) who has been courting her while on shore leave.
Flack’s production has an enjoyable theatrical zestiness to it. The characters are sharply drawn and choreographer Kate Champion contrives some jazzy little dance numbers for Jo and Jimmie (performed in the void between audience and set). There are even a couple of pratfalls.
Half an hour in, however, and things are starting to wear a little thin. We’ve been shown enough. We want to feel more.
Lemon plays to her strengths as a garrulous, narcissistic, life-of-the-party type. Ferguson, wearing a very wiggy-looking wig (a nod to Rita Tushingham in the 1961 film adaptation of the play, perhaps) is very good as Jo veers between teenage truculence, excitement and despair.
McConville gives us distilled essence of an Aussie spiv with a coiled spring of potential physical violence. Lekwape does some lovely work in a role that doesn’t extend beyond interval. Tom Anson Mesker gently lights up the second half as Geoffrey, the homeless gay student who moves in with Jo and sets himself up as big sister.
But the script’s less scintillating passages remain obvious and in the final half hour, as Jo struggles in late pregnancy, the storytelling sags.
I left feeling that Flack and company might have taken a bolder approach to the play. Not Perspex boxes and neon tubes, perhaps, but something more in tune with the young Delaney’s fuck-you-all spirit.