Gemma Dobson as Jo, Durone Stokes as Jimmie and Jodie Prenger as Helen. Picture: Marc Brenner

A Taste of Honey  

Wolverhampton Grand Theatre  


A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play about a mother and daughter struggling to keep heads and hearts above water in a cold and unforgiving northern town, may have lost its controversy but certainly none of its power.  

Back then, in a very conservative post war Britain, a storyline featuring a mixed-race relationship, a gay character, teenage pregnancy and a partner hopping mother pretty much ticked all the taboo boxes going.

Today, such stories wouldn’t even bat an eye lid on The Archers. What was a pioneering slice of kitchen sink drama is now firmly a period piece that demonstrates how much society has changed. None of that, however, takes away its worth as an insightful and beautifully observed piece of theatre.

Delaney’s play is lighter in tone, more naturalistic and funnier than the other well-known example of kitchen sink drama, John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger. Both marked a radical departure from the traditional ‘ drawing room’ style of theatre that preceded it and both genuinely shocked audiences with their gritty portrayals of family life, but whilst Osborne seemed bitter, Delaney at least saw the funny side amongst the doom and gloom.  

Hildegard Bechtler’s messy, bleak set perfectly reflects the daily austerity faced by a mother and daughter who move from one shabby flea pit to another. There is no ‘comfort’ in the surroundings, no homely touches, just a collection of functional rooms and a gas cooker that doesn’t work. A grey canvass for even greyer lives.  

The addition of period jazz songs sung live is a clever touch, adding to and embellishing the mood as well as bringing more light to the inevitable shade. Musicians are easily hidden in the dark corners of the set providing occasional and appropriate backing.

Jodie Prenger is bold and brassy as Helen, a mother still in pursuit of pleasure but deep down wants the best for her daughter. Whilst critical of her own daughter’s actions and decisions, she totters along a seemingly endless trail of unsuitable affairs and mis matched liaisons. Hardly ‘ Mother of The Year’ material but deep down there is a heart. Prenger gets the balance just right.  

Gemma Dobson brings out the layers of Jo, the daughter, seamlessly . There is a lot to convey here. Teenage rebellion, falling in love, dislike of her mother’s lover, forming true friendship and growing up quickly. Dobson hits all the points in an intensely likable and brutally honest performance.

Of the male characters, Geoffrey, Jo’s kind hearted and pragmatic gay friend, is the most sympathetic. Unlike the other males, he is not ‘only after one thing’ and provides the only real example of mutual friendship as he takes on the protective mantle of ‘ expectant father’. Stuart Thompson gives Geoffrey a warm-hearted sensitivity that appeals throughout his scenes.

Tom Varey shows a playful, even thoughtful side to Peter, the sailor who professes to love Jo, then makes her pregnant and returns to sea. It’s an unforgiving plot line, but sensitively played out.

Durone Stokes spits out testosterone as the chauvinistic Jimmie, Helen’s somewhat younger lover who soon leaves for a younger model of his own. . Most of us saw that one coming, probably even Helen.  

Directed by Bijan Sheibani for The National Theatre, this is important and influential theatre that continues to make its mark after 60 years.

A real treat. Taste it while you can. To 09-11-19

Tom Roberts


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