Review 4**** A Taste of Honey – Trafalgar Studios @NationalTheatre @TrafStudios

A gritty northern drama from the very top draw. A taste of honey just got that much sweeter.

Once upon a time, theatre director Joan Littlewood took a pinch of inspiration and mixed it with a cupful of talent to create the Theatre Workshop. Based at Theatre Royal Stratford East the workshop gave many young artists their first break. Lionel Bart’s breakthrough musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be was directed by Joan Littlewood.

However, her other great discovery was Shelagh Delaney; a precious nineteen year old playwright who presented her with a terrifyingly good play called A taste of honey. It premiered in May 1958 and later transferred to the West End and Broadway receiving critical and popular acclaim.

Now sixty years later the play has returned to the West End stage in a superlative new production. The story is a glorious melting pot dealing with class, race and sexuality; relatively tame subjects viewed through 21st century eyes, but it must have caused one hell of a stir in 1958 when society was conservative with a small ‘c’. The story is set in 1950s Salford where Helen (Jodie Prenger) endures a fraught relationship with seventeen year old daughter Jo (Gemma Dobson). Helen is soon distracted by the attentions of rich toyboy lover Peter (Tom Varey). Not to be outdone, Jo has a fling with Jimmie (Durone Stokes), a black sailor. Jimmie promises her marraige and a happy ever after; but soon returns to sea leaving Jo pregnant. She finds comfort and support in art student Geof (Stuart Thompson) as they move in together. It becomes a flag of convenience as the soon-to-be single mother covers for a gay man with no right of expression. But what will mother Helen say when she lands on the scene?

The play crackles with realism and a down to earth working class gob that’s never backward in coming forward. Although a highly literate drama, it also benefits from occasional musical interludes. A drum, double bass and piano give the production a cool edge featuring songs from the era. The template for comparison will always fall back on the classic black film version of the play starring Dora Bryan and Rita Tushingham. Jodie Prenger and Gemma Dobson are more than a match as they both deliver excellent performances. Jodie Prenger is strangely reminiscent of Elsie Tanner; the redoubtable Coronation Street character created by Pat Phoenix. But it’s really Gemma Dobson that steals the show as the loud, confident but ultimately fragile Jo.

Writer: Shelagh Delaney

Director: Bijan Sheibani

Music Director: David O’Brien

Producers: National Theatre/Trafalgar Studios

Box Office: 0207 321 5400

Booking Link: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/a-taste-of-honey-at-trafalgar-studios/dates-listing

Booking Until: 29 February 2020

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