It is easy to feel jaded as a reviewer, particularly when a play you’ve seen countless times pops up again on the season brochure. When it comes to refreshing an old favourite, star casting works.
In Manchester we’ve recently seen Jodie Prenger breathe new life into Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party as over-bearing hostess Beverly. Now she leads the National Theatre’s new production of A Taste of Honey, which opens at the Lowry in Salford, the city where Shelagh Delaney penned and set her working-class drama more than 60 years ago.
There is no doubt Prenger is a huge box-office draw, and rightly so. She brings likeability to well-trodden and troubled characters; she has great comic timing and is never less than mesmerising on stage. Here, she embraces the brashness, humour and often ignorance of single-mum, Helen, while injecting a genuine vulnerability to her performance, giving the character genuine humanity the audience can relate to.
In her hands the dialogue feels fresh, fast and edgily cutting. It makes us look again at Delaney’s script and realise what an achievement it was for any woman at that time, let alone a working-class woman with little education.
Delaney left school at the age of 15 and wrote this play in two weeks aged 18 after her first visit to the theatre. There is a rawness to the writing that hasn’t lessened with time. Salford may have changed, but the gritty humour of survival is still recognisable.
The story centres on a mother, Helen and daughter, Jo, who drift from one grotty flat to the next, as Helen’s fancy takes her. The pair have a shouty relationship. At one point, art student, Geoffrey asks: ‘Why are you always shouting?’ to which Jo replies: ‘Because we like it.’
As struggling teenager, Jo, Gemma Dobson is annoyingly shouty at times – appropriately just like an angry teen. When her mum runs off with Peter (Tom Varey), a cocky drunk, half her age, Jo finds herself in the arms of handsome Black sailor, Jimmie who promises love and marriage. Six months later she is living unconventionally with Geoffrey, a confused young gay man who also offers to marry her.
In one sense Jo is bursting through conventions and ignorance of a previous generation and marking out a new future. In another she is reliving her mother’s mistakes.
Hildegard Bechtler’s industrial grey set captures this dramatic starkness while director, Bijan Sheibani adds an extra dimension to the story with a filmic soundtrack from live musicians playing piano, drums and double-bass on stage. Prenger, well-known for her musical stage roles in Calamity Jane and Oliver, opens with a sultry song by the piano; Durone Stokes adds joy with his romantic love-song as Romeo sailor, Jimmie; and Stuart Thompson, making an impressive professional stage debut as Geoffrey, lightens the mood when he dances on stage for the first time to ‘Mad about the Boy’. It’s entertaining, bold and, like the best soap opera, leaves us wanting to know what happens next.★ ★ ★ ★
The National Theatre on tour: A Taste of Honey is at The Lowry, Salford Quays from 13-21 September 2019 and tours the UK until 16 November 2019. Age guidance 13+ This performance includes smoking using non-nicotine E-cigarettes and E-Cigars.