A Taste of Honey at the National Theatre
Written by Shelagh Delaney when she was just 19 and first performed in 1958, A Taste of Honey is the definitive kitchen-sink drama. The play tells the story of a mother, Helen and her teenage daughter, Jo. At its opening we find the pair, recently having done a midnight flit, moving in to their new and squalid residence in Salford. The first act establishes their volatile and competitive relationship with one another as well as Helen’s dalliance with Peter, a man ten years younger than her and Jo’s romance with navy nurse Jimmie. In the second half, Helen has left and married her lover whilst Jo is pregnant and living in the flat with gay friend and art student Geoff.
Delaney claimed to have written the play in response to a boring performance she had seen of Variations on a Theme by Rattigan, feeling that she could write a lot better. It is hard to fault her ability to entertain as she deftly crafts a dialogue that is snappy, filled with witty comebacks and as rhythmically unpredictable as the jazz which plays at each interlude. This is mostly played out between the central women, of course, and Lesley Sharp’s Helen is beguilingly exuberant whilst Kate O’Flynn gives a mesmerising and tough performance as stroppy Jo. The humour counters the depressing nature of their circumstances and is often satirical in a way that is surprisingly relevant to today: “In this country, the more you know the less they pay you,” quips Jo at one point.
As the play progresses, the humour stays raucous but the subject matter increases in poignancy and the mirth becomes a little repulsive. For example, when Helen discovers that Jo’s unborn child is to be mixed race, she unleashes an outburst of slurs that are so outrageous it is difficult to laugh even in irony. In a way, living impoverished and in their claustrophobic flat, their witty repartee is all they have and as the play’s title suggests, anything more than a taste of something sweet is sickening.
The tension is centred on whether or not Jo will make the same mistakes as her mother. “It’s like Ibsen’s Ghosts,” declares Geoff, insightfully. Indeed, it is utterly frustrating to sit and watch as Helen attempts to wrestle her way back in to the home, thus expelling the hapless but invaluably helpful Geoff. “We’re back to where we started,” states Jo, as though this was inevitable and your heart breaks.
A Taste of Honey is at the National Theatre until 11th May 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the director and cast talk about the play here: