If you are a student of the theatre, maybe you’ve heard of Shelagh Delaney.
Maybe, if you haunt secondhand record shops, you’ll know her face.
But chances are that until now, you’ve never seen Delaney’s best-known play, A Taste of Honey, her unsentimental, slice-of-life portrait of a garrulous working class single mother Helen and her rebellious teenaged daughter Jo.
Belvoir’s production, directed by Eamon Flack and starring Genevieve Lemon and Taylor Ferguson, is the first professional staging of the play in decades.
Born and raised in Salford, Lancashire, Delaney was just 19 when her debut play, A Taste of Honey, premiered at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in London, a venue thriving under the management of Gerry Raffles and directorship of Joan Littlewood.
Delaney was a rarity in those times – and not just for her youth. While there were high-profile women playwrights writing commercial hits (Lesley Storm, Enid Bagnold and Agatha Christie, for example), women’s voices were largely absent from stages devoted to new writing in the era of the “angry young men”.
For example, of the more than 200 Royal Court productions mounted in the decade from 1956 (the year John Osborne’s genre-defining Look Back in Anger premiered), only 15 were written by women – and six of those were one-off Sunday afternoon performances.
The era’s “angry young women” numbered two: Delaney and Anne Jellicoe.
The reviews for A Taste of Honey were mixed. Progressive publications raved. Establishment papers were lukewarm to patronising in their assessments.
Writing in Encore magazine, the critic and director Lindsay Anderson saw A Taste of Honey as “a work of complete, exhilarating originality” and “a real escape from the middlebrow, middle-class vacuum of the West End”.
Novelist-critic Colin MacInnes, who captured 1950s England in books such as Absolute Beginners and City of Spades, was impressed: “A Taste of Honey is the first English play I’ve seen in which a coloured man and a queer boy are presented as natural characters, factually, without a nudge or shudder … The play gives a great thirst for more authentic portraits of the mid 20th-century English world.”
Kenneth Tynan likened it to a “tearful inferno”.
But the Daily Mail’s critic dismissed it as a work tasting not of honey, but “of exercise books and marmalade”, a swipe at Delaney’s youth and provincial background.
There was audience vitriol, too, arriving in those days by post: “What a disgrace not only to the name of THEATRE but to womanhood you are with your dirty clothes and grubby skin and hair,” wrote one furious theatre lover in a letter Delaney later published in a collection of short stories, Sweetly Sings the Donkey.
In the end, Delaney had the last laugh. A Taste of Honey transferred to the West End and later played Broadway with Angela Lansbury and Joan Plowright as mother and daughter.
“Shelagh took it all in her stride,” wrote Joan Littlewood in her autobiography Joan’s Book. “She was seen in the right pubs coping with the latest drinks and entertaining her hosts with laconic comments in her broad Salford accent.”
In 1961, A Taste of Honey was released as a film, with Delaney adapting her script into a screenplay and Tony Richardson (The Entertainer, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) directing.
Dora Bryan collected a BAFTA award for her portrayal of Helen, Rita Tushingham (Jo) was voted Most Promising Newcomer and the film was voted the best British production of the year.
Five decades on, the film is regarded as one of the high water marks in British realist cinema.
With success came celebrity and, for the first time in her life, money. Delaney was the subject of a BBC documentary (Shelagh Delaney’s Salford, directed by Ken Russell; you can watch it here) and she was paid £20,000 for the film rights.
But her next play, The Lion in Love, which opened in 1960 in Coventry, and transferred to the Royal Court later that year, did nothing like the business of its predecessor. Its cast of 24 named characters consigned it to obscurity ever after.
After that, Delaney all but abandoned writing for the stage. The early 1960s boom in British film and television production proved irresistible. Delaney penned screenplays for films including The White Bus (1967) and Charlie Bubbles (1967) and several teleplays, series and radio scripts for the BBC.
Her biggest screenplay success came much later with Dance With a Stranger (1985), the story of Ruth Ellis (played by Miranda Richardson), the last woman hanged in Britain.
Interest in Delaney’s work was scant until the mid-1980s when Morrissey of The Smiths namechecked Delaney in an interview (“I’ve never made any secret of the fact that at least 50 per cent of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney,” he told the NME in 1986) and used portraits of the playwright on the cover of the band’s 1987 single Girlfriend in a Coma and its Louder Than Bombs CD.
Lines from the play are sprinkled through several Smiths songs such as Hand In Glove, This Night Has Opened My Eyes and Shoplifters Of The World Unite.
Delaney died in 2011, sparking a revival of interest in A Taste of Honey, and a number of British and American productions.