A Taste of Honey @ Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
Bijan Sheibani's new production of Shelagh Delaney's ground-breaking work falls a little short of its potential
Written when the dramatist was still a teenager, Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey revitalised British theatre when it premiered in 1958. It was a defining contribution to the then-burgeoning kitchen-sink movement – a theatrical revolution that aimed to bring working class experiences, northern voices and biting social realism to the stage. The inspiration behind numerous now-iconic Smiths lyrics, and arguably the genesis of the soap genre as we know it today, Delaney's script tapped into a latent British fascination with the poetry of the quotidian. The play was adapted for the big screen in 1961, securing its place in the history of British culture.
Set in a run-down flat in Salford, the play focuses on the relationship between Jo, a working-class seventeen year old, and Helen, her negligent and self-absorbed single mother. When Helen's dreams of a more glamorous life for herself seem suddenly within her reach, she leaves Jo to fend for herself as she enters the adult world, navigating relationships and the challenges of life as a disadvantaged young woman.
Jodie Prenger is bombastic and compelling as Helen, but her portrayal relies too heavily on caricature, which deprives the play of a degree of its emotional power and integrity. Gemma Dobson is convincing as Jo, but her focus throughout is on the character's frustration and defiance, rather than her vulnerability, leading to a performance that would benefit from a little more nuance.
The fast pace of the production reflects the duo's resilience in the face of interminable hardship and a constant barrage of obstacles and challenges, but means some of the more tender, reflective and emotional moments of the play lose their impact. The result is a production that feels a little one-note, despite solid performances.
Nevertheless, there is a lot to commend about the production. Musical director David O'Brien has introduced some charming flourishes, and makes good use of Prenger's West End singing talent. Similarly, the gloomy set design and intentionally messy scene transitions convey the clutter and chaos of the characters' circumstances and emotions. The power of Delaney's script is undeniable, even if aspects of this version of A Taste of Honey render it a little bittersweet.