“The dream has gone but the baby is real,” wrote Delaney and warbled Morrissey; one thing remains certain — the dream has definitely gone. Bijan Sheibani’s 2019 rendition of A Taste of Honey does Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 cult classic a great disservice. Depicting the tempestuous mother-daughter relationship of Jo and Helen in post-war, working-class Salford, A Taste of Honey has proved a pertinent intersectional social commentary. Sheibani’s production, however, proves to be more reminiscent of a melodramatic soap opera, characterised by histrionic exits and a heavy dose of over-acting.
Jodie Prenger’s depiction of Helen is the caricature of the robust, jolly and mouthy northerner, whilst Tom Varey’s unconvincing swagger as Peter would have been better placed in a budget gangster film. It is Gemma Dobson’s portrayal of Jo that most lacks nuance; she maintains one shrill tone throughout the performance. With nothing being said and everything being screamed, the pertinence of her situation as a soon-to-be young mother is lost admidst her jarring performance. Lacking in chemistry, Dobson’s and Prenger’s interactions feel rushed, leaving whole scenes hard to follow. The humour that does emerge comes not from effective delivery but from the success of Delaney’s writing fighting its way through.
Despite its shortcomings, the production is not devoid of redeeming features. Stuart Thompson’s more measured and understated portrayal of Geoff, Jo’s art student comrade, is a breath of fresh air within the second act. The more convincing chemistry between Dobson and Thompson leads to the production’s most poignant scene of pregnant Jo and bumbling Geoff quietly musing upon the absurdity of their unconventional cohabitation.
Likewise, Hildegard Bechtler’s set design is immediately effective. Overbearing grey walls and threadbare furniture come together with a technically impressive ‘window’ which sheds light on the surroundings, adding an intriguing warmth to the stage, reflecting the emotional depth woven beneath the surface of Delaney’s work.
The live jazz music is also a welcome touch, adding a sultry nod to the music-hall phenomenon that characterised 1950s popular culture. That is, until the singing begins. Characters bursting into song prove an unwelcome addition, detracting once again from play’s central message and social realism. This is exemplified most obviously by the otherwise well-executed portrayal of Geoff, who intermittently belts out ‘Mad About the Boy’, typifying the play’s lack of subtlety. By so blatantly and distastefully pointing toward the character’s homosexuality — which is already approached within the dialogue — the audience is handed everything on a plate, negating and undermining the power of Delaney’s original script.
After a long period of austerity and the growth of inequality, the message of A Taste of Honey is needed now more than ever. Sheibani, however, fails to capitalise on the reality of the lives depicted, instead favouring a tasteless rendition of working-class, soap opera stereotypes.
A Taste of Honey runs at the King’s Theatre until the 26th of September.
Image: Marc Brenner