Written by an 18-year-old female playwright in a time when such a voice was rarely heard, Shelagh Delaney’s play Taste of Honey was inflammatory and cutting edge. The Pearl and director Austin Pendleton have brought one of the most iconic plays of 1950s Great Britain to the New York stage.
Jo, an 18-year-old girl, deals with her own rage and grief as she struggles to build some semblance of a life in a world that couldn’t care less about her. How can a young girl find happiness in a dysfunctional family, in a dysfunctional town, in a dysfunctional time? Set in post-WWII Salford, Northern England, the town itself is covered in soot from the factories, the people are weary and suffocated by the lack of opportunity, and even Jo’s mother runs off with the first man who asks her and leaves Jo to fend for herself. Jo finds a small spark of pleasure with Jimmie, a black sailor. But that spark is quickly extinguished as she is left pregnant and alone to be a single mother of a biracial child in 1950s England with only her gay friend, Geoff, for company.
The play is as relevant as ever, dealing with classism, racism, feminism, and gay rights. A Taste of Honey has everything it needs to be a galvanizing show, revealing to us how far we have and haven’t come in the last 57 years. However, this production of Taste of Honey has a stereotypical American perspective of 1950s British life that doesn’t quite earn the title of the work of an “angry young woman” as it once did. This show lacked the electric anger and the gritty desperation that was integral to the culture at the time and is much needed to energize this production.
The audience laughed quite a bit and seemed to enjoy the show as it was basically a competent production. There were worthy moments: Jo’s integrity and relationship with Geoff is a lovely balm, and the musicians that made up the house band, The Blackbirds, truly blew me away with their high quality jams. And while the show might be entertaining for an audience that isn’t familiar with British culture, the lack of cultural integrity is jarring.
The furious British quips, turns of phrase, marks of class identity, and cultural commentary was passed over in favor of the easy answer. Slightly farcical in its execution especially by the adults of the show, the emotional heavy lifting was left to the younger members of the cast. But a more conspicuous example of the lack of cultural due diligence was the accents. None of the actors’ accents were from the same region or class. An odd mix of RP, Scottish and American seeped in throughout. I understand that regional northern dialects are challenging but when a play hinges on class and culture as the very root of the drama in the show- to get these basic necessities wrong either condescends to the audience and falls short of bring us into Delaney’s world or from a lesser director could appear ignorant or lazy.
This show could’ve been great. The Pearl is a staple theatrical company here in NYC that brings important works to the stage and has the resources and talent to deliver a brilliant show, so it’s frustrating to see such a miss. If you want to see an unchallenging production of a great play, this might be for you. You might even have a few chuckles. But you won’t leave the theatre changed.