Review: A Taste of Honey, National Theatre

“My usual self is a very unusual self”

The sight of Bijan Sheibani’s name on the creatives’ list of a show is now a terrifying one – swinging arbitrarily from the sublime to the ridiculous, it is impossible to tell what he is going to pull from his crazy-ass hat and so going to see one of his production automatically has a certain frisson about it before the curtain even rises. But even with this risk, getting to see Shelagh Delaney’s 1950s classic A Taste of Honey for the first time was something I was not willing to pass up, especially with Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn in the cast.

And pretty damn fantastic it was too. An initial shadow of doubt as Hildegard Bechtler’s expansive set was revealed in its revolving glory was soon dispelled as it became apparent we had #goodSheibani, utilising a pared-back approach free from distractions and cultivating some high-intensity performances from his two leads. It definitely helps though when they are Dame-in-the-making Lesley Sharp and rising star Kate O’Flynn, my actress of the year in 2012 and surely destined to become one of our most interesting young performers. 

The play is set in a grim post-war Salford, where flighty Helen fixes her sights on marrying a likely wheeler-dealer, abandoning her teenage daughter Jo in their poky flat who finds her own head turned by a dashing black sailor, though what he leaves behind is a baby whose mixed-race heritage threatens scandal. Delaney eschews dramatic set-ups though for a gorgeously drawn set of relationships, examining the close-knit nature of working class life and the extent to which folk will go for a crumb of comfort.

Helen’s level of self-involvement is staggering at times yet Sharp brings her to vivacious life with just a hint of what has been previously endured, a powerfully persuasive personality trying to bulldoze its way through life before the walls truly cave in. Kate O’Flynn split opinion within my group but I felt her performance was spot on, her sparky relentlessness in the first half a keen reminder of how young she still is even as she is forced to mature quickly by circumstances. And after the interval, she deepens her portrayal of Jo to beautiful effect.

There’s great work too from Harry Hepple as Geoffrey, the gay art student who befriends Jo and finds a ready-made surrogate family which he embraces whole-heartedly. It’s another example of Delaney’s forthright vision – gay friends, black lovers, teenage pregnancy out of wedlock, it’s bold stuff for anyone in the 50s, never mind an 18 year old first-time playwright. Blurred Lines might lay claim to be the modern face of feminism at the NT at the moment but Delaney’s trail-blazing work – lovingly revived here – shows it how it is done. 

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Marc Brenner

Booking until 11th May

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