Wikipedia describes this play as blowing ‘a refreshing wind through British theatre’ when it was first performed by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in 1958, and one senses that this wind of change is part of the reason Babych has chosen this work to launch his new tenure as Hull Truck’s artistic director.
A production that kicks off with a skiffle band is always going to get a warm welcome from me. Before Hull Truck’s main houselights fade we are treated to ‘Leaning on a Lampost’ complete with kazoo and washboard to conjure 1959 Salford and how to make the best of things despite overwhelming poverty. That pretty much sums up Helen (Riley) and Jo (Ryan) as they inspect their new boarding house: cold, damp and smelling of the nearby river, gas works and slaughter house. No wonder characters make a habit of pulling their coats so tightly round them that even the audience feels, like Helen, that their digs are ‘giving shelter to the four winds’. Helen is nursing a cold, which Jo later catches, but they both in their own ways try to conquer the gloom and despair. Helen snatches at a chance to escape, and Jo finds a moment of honey with winning sailor, Jimmy (Lawal).
This is kitchen sink drama without the kitchen – the communal facilities lie offstage. Helen has little use for them anyway, setting more store by her favourite tipple. It is only in the second half when Geoff (Hancock) shows Jo what real mothering is like, that the oven gets cleaned out and used. Helen doesn’t cook, has never ‘laid claim to being a proper mother’, and indeed her daughter calls her ‘Helen’ not mum. A study in how a desperate woman supports and betrays even her own flesh and blood, Helen is a tough survivor. Ruthlessly selfish, Riley is utterly convincing in the conflicted role; eliciting pity as often as our condemnation, in a virtuoso performance. Her partnership with her elected knight in shining armour, the drunken but wealthy Peter (Weaver), is grotesquely believable. Weaver has previous in Hull for gothic monster Jekyll/Hyde and he modulates that talent beautifully for this piece.
At the heart of the play is the relationship between Geoff and Jo, rather overshadowed by her mother and Peter in this production. In their mutual need, these fragile teenagers find each other, and share a time of kindness away from their incompatible sexualities and the corrosive influences of their families and the world outside. Murray Melvin’s portrayal of Geoff in the film of ‘A Taste of Honey’ was a hard act to follow, embodying as he did, vulnerable humanity. Hancock makes a good fist of it, however, and his dispatch by Helen is the real tragedy.
Helen and Jo’s predicament has been played out on stages for fifty years. The poverty trap is no longer a novelty on stage and their inevitable trajectories open the play up to audience’s misery-fatigue. Featuring all the minorities: the poor, women, blacks, gays, that elusive ‘taste of honey’ is unsurprisingly scarce. However, this production leans towards a musical counterpoint to all the depressing reality and the ensemble’s musicianship is a delight. Popular music, bawdy folk songs and ballads are authentic testimony to the fighting spirit of these characters – and Weaver’s Elvis is spot on. Costumes work brilliantly (Designer, Hayley Grindle). Helen’s glorious two-toned mules reflect her torn loyalties, and Jo’s feisty sunshine spirit shines through in her yellow smock.
This is Mark Babych’s first production as Artistic Director since his appointment in 2013 and as such a non-updated production of ‘A Taste of Honey’ seems an odd choice. Granted it is a northern play, and by a woman: both positive developments if they signpost future plans, but it can hardly be classed new writing, something Hull has valiantly championed over decades. So why? Like many theatres, Hull needs to remain accessible to audiences at a time when money is tight, but I hope its selection is more in homage to Littlewood and her fearless theatre of ideas and struggle. If that’s the way the wind is blowing, I’m all for it.