A Taste of Honey

11th to 18th February 2023

Shelagh Delaney | The Crescent Theatre | Directed by Colin Judges

Confession time: this was my first ‘A Taste of Honey’. Shelagh Delaney’s taboo-shattering play, first performed in 1958, has long been on my ‘must-see’ list but for some reason it’s escaped me. Until now.

Famously written when she was just 19, Delaney’s ‘kitchen sink’ drama (set in 1950s Salford) is an era-defining play that changed British theatre. Critical reception was mixed in 1958, however: the Evening Standard branded it “immature” and “unconvincing”. Thankfully there was more enlightened appreciation for this revolutionary play in other quarters: Kenneth Tynan praised it for bringing “real people” on to the stage. It certainly marked a welcome departure from what one critic called the “middlebrow, middle-class vacuum of the West End.”

It retains much of its power and in its latest incarnation at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham, directed and designed by Colin Judges, it is confidently delivered by a talented cast. Katie Merriman plays Helen, a working-class single mother whose sexually indiscriminate behaviour is the foundation for the turbulent relationship with her teenage daughter Jo. Merriman’s Helen is a cigarette-wielding, whiskey-downing whirlwind of a woman with perfect comic timing. The dark comedy in Delaney’s writing (“Have I ever laid claim to being a proper mother?”) is mined at every opportunity which made for a funnier than expected night in the theatre. Helen’s fling with Peter seems doomed from the start: Matt Kitson nicely capturing the vulgarity and insensitivity of the richer, younger lover.

If the laughs distract slightly from the gritty bleakness of the play, Colette Nooney’s Jo restores the balance in an authentic and moving performance: disaffected and angry without any of the surliness and petulance often associated with teenagers. Her delivery is full of wistful pathos (“A bit of love, a bit of lust, and there you are. We don’t ask for life. We have it thrust upon us”) and there is genuine tenderness in her relationship with surrogate father and gay friend Geoffrey, played with a perfect balance of awkwardness and defiant strength by Alex Gale.

In addition to exploring the social issue of homosexuality (illegal in 1958 and not decriminalised until 1967), ‘A Taste of Honey’ also tackles interracial relationships. Jo’s romance with Jimmy, a black sailor, continues to speak to modern audiences about racial prejudice. Dewaine Barrett’s understated performance as Jimmy combines affectionate charm with a powerful sense of the character’s internalised racism. His expectation that Jo would be ashamed to be seen in public with him was one of many moments in the play which highlighted how far we’ve come since it was first performed, although general acceptance of interracial relationships and gay marriage equality do not mean that we are living in a country free from prejudice in 2023.

Lives teetering on the edge of chaos is what most powerfully emerges in this landmark play. Taboos may have changed but Delaney’s story of social class, race, gender and sexuality still speaks to us and I can see why it was and still is regarded as era-defining. I’m delighted to have ticked it off my ‘must-see’ list in the capable hands of the Crescent Theatre.

‘A Taste of Honey’ is playing at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham from 11th to 18th February 2023.

A Taste of Honey