In 1958 a theatrical and social sensation rocked the British stage world. It was A Taste of Honey, the first play of 18 year-old Shelagh Delaney from Salford, a section of Manchester. Familiar with Salford’s working-class and their spirit, she wrote about their lives with little regard for traditional theatrical propriety. While of the generation of those British playwrights known as the “angry young men,” (John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe), men who were characterized by their disillusionment with British society and who rejected traditional reserve and gentility, Shelagh defied inclusion in this masculine assembly. Yes, she was definitely angry at the social and economic grim conditions of England, but she wanted to set her creative sights beyond anger.
Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey in just two weeks as a reaction to what she regarded as the genteel stage writing of Terence Rattigan’s play “Variation on a Theme.” She felt his play was not socially bold enough; it only dealt covertly with themes of homosexuality, promiscuity and bisexuality. She felt Rattigan was insensitive in his portrayal of homosexuals and was determined to write something better, and better meant closer to the reality of those themes and others related to women. It is generally agreed that A Taste of Honey is the first modern play to depict a gay working-class man. Further, what was also sensational about the play was its feminist approach. Its main characters are women, not angry men, who frustrated with their living conditions, will survive because among other things, like many of the people Shelagh Delaney knew, they are “very alive and cynical.” Steeped in a world of poverty and male domination, Helen and her daughter, Jo, are desperate for a few meager moments of happiness and love.
In an interview with Murray Melvin, the actor who played the young gay artist, Geoffrey in both the premier and film version which Delaney co-wrote with director Tony Richardson, he remembers being warned before opening night that there could be trouble from the audience. Instead the cast was rewarded with a roar of approval.
It became a smash hit when it transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre, London on February 10, 1959. Its Broadway run of more than 300 performances in 1960 was directed by Tony Richardson and George Devine and starred Angela Lansbury as Helen, Joan Plowright as Joe and Billy Dee Williams as the sailor.
The Pearl Theater production directed by Austin Pendleton marks the play’s first New York revival in 35 years. And while the play is certainly not as “sensational” now as it was in the 60s, today we still grapple with its issues of abusive relationships, racism and free expression of one’s sexuality.
The story is about Jo, a working-class girl, and her relationships with Helen, her semi-whore of a mother, Helen’s lover then husband, a black sailor referred to as “The Boy” whom Jo falls in love with and who leaves her pregnant, and Geoff, a young gay artist whom she befriends and who cares for her throughout her pregnancy. All are striving to survive in a very grim post-war city devastated by industrial pollution and unemployment. Personal frustrations become the weapons used against each. Such is the social and economic circumstance of the play. What of the story that resonates for today’s audience is Jo’s struggle to accept her transition from childhood to womanhood and motherhood.
While Mr. Pendleton presents us with energized, frustrated and restless characters, the world they inhabit in this revival lacks the grim desolation demanded by Delaney’s work. The set, impressively designed by Harry Feiner in autumnal browns and yellows with a muted backdrop of a northern England industrial city, does indeed allow for a fluidity between reality and theatricality, particularly between Jo’s circumstances and the musical trio. However, everything is a bit too clean and nice – the furniture isn’t really worn and shabby, the tablecloth isn’t dirty. This ultimately weakens the cold “comfortless flat” Delaney describes and the play demands.
There are times in the first act especially when the action moves so fast the actors don’t have time to truly embody their characters’ discomforts, an important aspect of the dismal conditions they have to endure. A disconnect is created between saying a line and doing its action, as for example when Helen talks about her cold and its sniffles and then sniffles, or when Jo complains of wet feet and does nothing about it. The place is after all meant to be a dirty, cold, stinky, flat with a leaking roof, near a slaughterhouse!
This production, however jarringly, is not all social gloom and doom. A trio (Max Boiko, Phil Faconti and Walter Stinson) punctuates the action with an array of music from English music hall to jazz. All the characters display a lively, cynical humor to lift them out of the doldrums. This is where Pendleton’s cast flourishes. Even when Jo and Helen’s arguments become too strident, there is still a kind of comic brashness under it all highlighting the pervading fear that being soft and considerate of one’s feelings might render one sentimental and weak. And even when Bradford Cover’s Peter is at times outrageously overstated, he is after all a loud and arrogant alcoholic who provides Helen with a kind of false and temporary security. Everyone yearns for a taste of happiness, love, or fun, no matter how short-lived.
The mother-daughter love-hate theme is the spine of A Taste of Honey. Helen still wants to control her daughter’s life because, in part, she can’t control her own, especially when it comes to the power men and sex have over her. Unlike her sex-driven mother who makes mistake after mistake with men and ultimately sighs, “Still, it was good while it lasted,” Jo learns that she can love and be loved through her non-sexual friendship with Geoff who cares enough about her that he is willing to marry her. The scenes between Jo and Geoff (played beautifully by Rebekah Brockman and John Evans Reese) are tenderly complex in all their emotional undulations. Finally she comes to accept who she is despite her mother’s continual put-downs : “I’m a contemporary …I really do live at the same time as myself, don’t I?”
The strident love-hate shouting matches between daughter and mother (played with much enthusiastic abandon by Rachel Botchan and Rebekah Brckman) are counter-balanced with deepening of complex emotions – the honey within this otherwise sour world. We see this in the tender seduction scenes between Jo and Jimmie (Ade Otukoya’s sweet sailor) and the honesty between Jo and Geoff (in John Evans Reese’s fine, understated performance). Brockman is particularly moving when she struggles to deal with her pregnancy from wanting to kill the child to feeling the delightful immensity of her motherhood (“I feel wonderful. Aren’t I enormous?”). Geoff’s love for Jo evolves from just caring to even suggesting they marry. We understand the depth of Helen’s desperation when Peter brags about his profligate ways and disparages Helen in front of her daughter. For this survivor, there is no resistance to his money and his masculine sex.
And Jo’s future? After Helen learns that Jo’s baby may be black, she addresses the audience: “I ask you, what would you do?” and goes. The stage play, unlike the film, leaves it up to the audience to ponder whether Jo will carry on alone now that the “dream’s gone but the baby’s real enough,” or if Helen or Geoff or even Jimmie might return. Mr. Pendleton’s staging enhances that ambiguity as Jo caresses the spaghetti box that Geoff purchased for their dinner, and remembers him by reciting his nursery rhyme. In Delaney’s desolate world, the nursery rhyme, once sweet in a childhood, is now bittersweet.