It has been more than 60 years since the premiere of then 19-year-old Shelagh Delaney’s debut play. Eight years after her death, the National Theatre’s staging takes liberties with the notion of A Taste of Honey as a kitchen sink drama, but Delaney’s dialogue remains remarkably fresh.
The sharp slice-of-life drama takes place almost entirely within a scruffy flat in 1950s’ Salford. Helen (Jodie Prenger) and her daughter Jo (Gemma Dobson) navigate a harsh existence in frank language, constantly looking for escape. For teenage Jo, this comes in the form of an affair with Nigerian sailor Jimmie (Durone Stokes) and his honeyed words. When Jimmie leaves her pregnant, she becomes reliant on her gay best friend Geoff (Stuart Thompson) and biscuits for sweet relief.
Director Bijan Sheibani punctuates the drama with a three-piece jazz band, reminiscent of Joan Littlewood’s original theatre workshop production. As characters slip into half snatches of song, the everyday becomes epic. This is emphasised by Paul Anderson’s dramatic lighting, which slices the stage into film noir haze-filled angles.
The band are an effective addition but elsewhere there is too much going on. Hildegard Bechtler’s design is appropriately moody but doesn’t necessitate constant rotating of sofas, curtains and an apparently infinite number of entrance points. It’s smoothly choreographed but often unnecessary.
However, Delaney’s words cut through everything, mother and daughter pulling focus. Prenger is extraordinary, her Helen natural, funny and carelessly cruel. Dobson finds Jo’s humanity whilst maintaining enough brattish attitude to avoid a grim cliché.