First performed in 1958, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey was one of the first ‘kitchen sink’ dramas in British theatres and shocked the staus quo with its unflinching depiction of ‘taboo’ subjects at the time. Unlike John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger and the other playwrights dubbed the ‘angry young men’ by the British press, A Taste of Honey is very much a play about postwar working class women and the choices they had (or lack of…) to improve their lot in life.
Set in Salford, Greater Manchester, we meet Helen (Katie Merriman) and her 17-year-old daughter Jo (Colette Nooney) as they move into their new home – a ‘no thrills’ flat in the most undesirable neighbourhood you can imagine. Helen is a ‘good time girl’ – more interested in drinking and her succession of ‘fancy men’ than looking after her daughter. The latest of Helen’s ‘suitors’ is Peter (Matt Kitson), a younger man from London whose penchant for drinking is insatiable.
Jo takes a dim view of her mother’s behaviour – the fact that Jo constantly refers to her as ‘Helen’ is an indication that she doesn’t think of her as a maternal figure. But while Jo has had to look after herself in her mother’s absence, the play shows there are facets of her life where she isn’t emotionally ‘mature’ (or at least not worldly-wise in matters of the heart). A brief romance with Jimmie, a sailor (Dewaine Barrett) leads to hasty engagement around Christmastime. However, following his departure back to the Navy, Jo finds herself pregnant and has no idea if the father of her child will ever return. Thank goodness then for Geoffrey (Alex Gale), an art student who in Helen’s absence, moves in with Jo and takes care of her. But the return of Helen after spending months away with her new husband upsets the equilibrium of the flat and as ‘experienced’ as Helen thinks she is, is ‘unprepared’ for Jo’s news…
As the central characters, Merriman and Nooney have palpable chemisty as mother and daughter, and while the ‘extremities’ of Helen’s behaviour are perhaps not ‘condoned’ by modern audiences, Helen’s struggle with hangovers, limited money and ‘relationships’ to help forget the harsher aspects of day-to-day living are all too relatable.
While the themes of A Taste of Honey appeared in other ‘kitchen sink’ dramas, they rarely covered as many topics as Delaney’s play. In this regards, A Taste of Honey is exceptionally daring. During this period, the Lord Chamberlain had the authority to veto performance licences on the grounds of ‘morality’, which is something that could have happened to Delaney’s play. But this was a risk worth taking, as A Taste of Honey tried to show a mirror to society and current events, rather than the escapism that was favoured prior to the Second World War.
Under such restrictions, it’s amazing that Delaney’s was able to be performed uncensored. The affair with Jimmie in the play is notable not just because it highlights the ‘unofficially recognised’ behaviour of sexual relationships outside marriage, but because Jimmie was black and would have been one of the first of the Windrush diaspora to arrive in Britain. For a different reason, Geoffrey’s presence in the play at the time would have been controversial. Homosexuality was still illegal in Britain at that time and ‘officially’, the mere mentioning of homosexuality was not allowed on the stage. This being the case, euphemistic language was used in the play to hint at Geoffey’s ‘persuasion’ and when we hear from Helen about Jo’s father, the audience suspects that Helen is being ‘economical with the truth’ to save embarrassment…
Even though A Taste of Honey isn’t ‘shocking’ to 21st century audiences, Colin Judges’ production at the Crescent Theatre holds a mirror to the cracks in society. There are, however, aspects to Helen and Jo’s circumstances that are ‘troubling’ even today. Leaving a teenager for months on end would nowadays constitute neglect and abandonment, though there are more than enough news headlines that show this isn’t an uncommon occurence.
Be that as it may, A Taste of Honey is without a doubt the first ‘modern’ play that questions, class, race, gender and sexual orientation in mid-twentieth century Britain. Delaney also, in her own way, paved the way for the likes of Andrea Dunbar 20+ years later – another northern playwright who didn’t just write about what working class conditions, her own experiences mirrored that of the character of Jo.
© Michael Davis 2023
A Taste of Honey ran at the Crescent Theatre from 11th to 18th February.