The National Theatre production of A Taste of Honey written by Shelagh Delaney and directed by Bijan Sheibani is a sweet success. A play which explores the hardships of poverty from the perspective of a mother, Helen played excellently by Jodie Prenger, and the daughter Josephine played by Gemma Dobson. Both characters are desperately seeking the love of another person in an attempt to escape the cycle of deprivation which they are trapped in. Although the play has moments of laughter throughout the hopeless atmosphere underlies and seems inescapable by the end, conveyed through remarkable performances, design and direction.
Sheibani’s vision seems an authentic depiction of late 1950’s Salford. He captures a real sense of community from the get-go, most likely inspired by Joan Littlewoods influence on the play in its time at Theatre Workshop in 1958. What creates this community feel is the musicians presence on stage throughout carefully watching the story being played out. As soon as you enter the auditorium the drums are being played lively by George Bird and slowly the atmosphere is intensified by the addition of the double bass by Alex Davis and pianist and musical director David O’Brien. O’Brien’s musical direction is one of the most impressive aspects of A Taste of Honey, carefully matching music to the action and individual characters. The jazz vocals and instrumental lift the play to the next level.
A Taste of Honey offers a cast of five strong characters – all well inhibited. Jodie Prenger commands the stage throughout, taking control of dialogue and of vocals with some soulful singing. She perfectly captures the flirtatious yet brutal polars of Helens character whilst showing moments of vulnerability especially in act 2. Prenger’s ability to get the audience on her side despite her stinging edge usually directed at her daughter is a real skill, definitely helped by Delaney’s Brechtian style of writing where Helen directly addresses the audience. Gemma Dobson’s performance is endearing, delivering one liners excellently. Dobson remained on stage for the whole play, indeed a demanding role which is carried off very well. The dysfunctional relationship between these two central characters creates a turbulent environment which is exciting to watch. Tom Varey offers a convincing portrayal of his harsh character Peter and Durone Stokes softness as Jimmie is a great contrast. Stuart Thompson shines as Geoffrey. His ability to sing, dance and act seamlessly is commendable. His entrance in act 2 changes the dynamic of the play, beginning the act in the dingy flat in Salford singing Noel Coward’s Mad About the Boy – a directorial choice to hint at his sexuality immediately. Thompson is the breath of fresh air act 2 needed and the flat for that matter! Overall some exceptional performances.
This play delves into love, motherhood, marriage and friendship in an imperfect, alcohol infused, music filled space. Bustling with heated conversations and excitingly invasive characters it is a thrilling watch. A Taste of Honey is captivating and emotive – a wonderful production!