Manchester Theatre Awards

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A Taste of Honey

Shelagh Delaney
Coliseum Company
Oldham Coliseum
25 May 2018 to 09 June 2018

One of the first of the so-called "kitchen sink" dramas of the late Fifties, Shelagh Delaney's first and faintly scrappy play - well, she was only 19 - was an unsettling pointer to a world that endures with bells on, precisely 60 years later.

Chris Lawson's production at the Coliseum is thus timely and salutary. Girls can still be as whiney, manipulative and honestly a bit stupid as they were in Delaney's Salford. But who can blame the heroine of this particular story, Jo (Gemma Dobson), with a mother like the appallingly boozy, loose-moralled Helen (Kerrie Taylor), whose relationship with men often starts in the pub, continues in the bedroom and ends at the bank.

At 17 going on 13 and craving love from her mother - who dumps her in their awful new flat to go off with Peter (Phil Rowson), her younger lover, Jo gives a bit too much affection to a charming sailor (Kenton Thomas) and when she says goodbye to him, she says hello to pregnancy.

She feels very little for the growing child - even when her effeminate pal Geof (Max Runham) pretty much offers to be the surrogate cleaner, best friend and provider for them all. The re-entry to their lives of selfish grandmother-to-be Helen spikes that relationship, leaving pretty much all parties back where they started - with the obvious suggestion that has been the way of underclass families since families began.

Delaney saw lives, homes and relationships like this growing up in Salford, and writes about them in a raw and disjointed way, understanding why things happen but resenting the hell out of it.

The play is very much English New Wave-scrappy, raw mood and the need to take bites out of the established playwriting orthodoxy making it a relationships drama, a romance, a dark comedy and much else in-between, but none of it to any great end except perhaps inevitability.

The play is often presented in an almost whimsical way, played for laughs or at least sympathy for Jo. Not here. Dobson gives us a heavy-set, me-me-me attitude to life - and her mother, in Taylor's hands, is harsh and selfish. She despises men despite spending half her life chasing them, and believes her daughter's relationships with men must follow the same path.

To prove her right, Delaney offers Peter, Helen's current philandering sugar daddy and future alcoholic, then Jimmie - affectionate if not entirely trustworthy, then Geof - perfect in every way, except Jo doesn't want him. Jo's cute nature in some productions is here turned against her: this isn't a girl needing help, just backbone and a kick up the backside.

While this hard-driving focus is great in theory, on opening night the play - despite a wonderfully dingy, drab set by Sammy Dowson - was let down rather by the dynamic between the players.

As Jo, Gemma Dobson works hard to elicit little sympathy, but the Helen of Kerrie Taylor is still a work in progress. Hashed timing of the dialogues between the women and Taylor's (presumably nervous) habit of mumbling her lines - albeit at breakneck speed as she fidgets around the stage - started out looking like part of her settling-in-with-an-audience routine, but gradually got more and more annoying.

Hopefully she will calm down the delivery a bit, to make this an even stronger for-our-times version of a now ageing modern classic.

Reviewer: Paul Genty