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Tuesday 18th November 2008
Theatre Review | A TASTE OF HONEY | Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Shelagh Delaney’s bruised, beautiful and salty A Taste Of Honey is – can you believe it? – fifty years old this year. A recent Salisbury revival, and productions in New York will all surely struggle to capture the sour, rain-drenched, hope-filled possibilities of this most Mancunian (or, strictly, Salfordian) of plays. Jo Combes’ anniversary production for the Royal Exchange is a knowing tribute to the great work of Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, and an undoubted highlight of the season.

Betwixt Look back In Anger and Coronation Street, Delaney offers a heartfelt plea for the unloved, the disenfranchised, and the yearning. Schoolgirl Jo (Jodie McNee) is bored with the itinerant lifestyle of hand-to-mouth with her “semi-whore” mother Helen (Sally Lindsay.) When Helen takes off with Peter (Paul Popplewell) in a whirlwind marriage, Jo seeks solace in the arms of black sailor Jimmie (Marcel McCalla,) becoming pregnant and setting up a queer domestic arrangement with fey art student Geof (Adam Gillen.) The play's treatment of teenage pregnancy and (coded) homosexuality is legendary; sympathetic, wise and heartfelt. Delaney clearly adores her creations, and they’ve worn well, despite countless imitations or variants down the years.

This indisputable masterpiece is given a fresh airing here, in a production Littlewood would surely have adored. Jo Combes has evident reverence for the text, but has imbued it with a distinct Mancunian freshness and sense of mischievous fun. It’s a shrewd move to have DJ Jon Winstanley live on stage (interacting with the cast,) spinning Manc anthems of the past half-century; it pays off, and is nicely echoed by the off-stage playground kids skipping to Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart Again.

What’s staggering is just how good the writing is. Delaney’s ear for the rhythms of colloquial speech, as well as the quiet ordinary poetry of everyday life, is spine-tingling. There is wisdom, maturity and confidence in the ideas, much more sophisticated than the “marmalade and exercise books” that some critics dismissed it as at the time.

Crucially, it’s all about the performances. Marcel McCalla makes a sunny, winning Jimmie – singing and dancing a dream. Paul Popplewell’s Peter is as smarmy as his suit. And Adam Gillen’s Geof is the best I’ve ever seen; sweet, clever, funny, lovely. All this blends well with McNee and Lindsay’s commanding central performances. Never off stage, McNee is radiant, showing the blossoming of womanhood, combined with the insecurities of a girl learning the realities of life. Quite simply, Sally Lindsay was born to play Helen. This, the best reading of the role I can recall, is a towering achievement. She spits, snarls, smiles, punishes, cajoles and charms all around her; a performance of real skill and wit.

You’ll probably feel you’ve seen it, know it, or couldn’t better the film version. Think again. This is a marvellous production of a truly remarkable play – staggeringly good.

© Matthew Nichols 2008

  • A Taste of Honey runs at Manchester's Royal Exchange until 6 December 2008.

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