Reviewed by Michelle Eagleton
Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
When one of Salford’s most iconic plays comes back home to its birthplace, there’s bound to be a huge weight on the company performing it to get it right. The National Theatre set itself the challenge of doing just that by making one of the first stops on its UK Tour of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, The Lowry.
Director Bijan Sheibani, who is at the helm of this production, has managed to rise to the challenge though, as it received an encouraging reaction from the audience on press night.
Sheibani takes the play back to its roots in this bold incarnation, which echoes how it was originally performed, adding the incorporation of music. There’s a live band onstage throughout, which accompanies the characters in solo numbers and plays underneath some of the dialogue, which helps evoke the mood of the piece.
For those who are unaware of the story behind the Shelagh Delaney classic, A Taste of Honey is essentially a gritty norther tale of the love-hate relationship between a working-class single mother Helen and her daughter Jo, set against the stark backdrop of 1950s Salford. The play was penned by 19-year-old Shelagh back in 1958 and it’s hard to believe that at such a young age the local girl, who had very little experience of seeing shows let alone writing them, could produce such prolific work which would resonate with generations to come.
Lancashire born theatre and TV star Jodie Prenger puts in a solid performance as northern matriarch Helen making the most of the acid tongue humour gifted from Delaney and her natural comedic delivery, prompting huge amounts of laughter from the audience. We also get the chance to see Prenger put her impressive vocal chords to good use as she packs a punch with the opening number ‘A Good Man’ (a soulful track reminiscent of some of the late Amy Winehouse’s repertoire).
Gemma Dobson’s portrayal of Jo creates a character that’s like marmite – you love her vulnerability one minute but want to throttle her for her outbursts the next. Dobson’s whining edge to Jo gets a little tedious in the second half of the play but overall her sweet scenes with Jimmie (her sailor love interest) and Geof make up for it and we see her performance of the troubled teen really come into its own.
Despite the play being primarily focused around the two main female roles, Jo and Helen, the stand out performance comes from one of the males in the cast, Stuart Thompson as Geof. Thompson is a delight to watch and displays a natural sensitivity as Jo’s gay best friend. Thompson manages to find a balance of campness and caring in the role of Geof, who struggles with his worries of being an outcast in the 1950s society whilst looking after his pregnant friend.
Elsewhere, Hildegard Bechtler’s contemporary design of the production adds to the bleakness of the piece with a minimalist set complete with stark and dingy lighting. Everything seems shabby and in need of TLC, except for Helen’s brash and glam outfits which extenuate her desire to appear better than she is in reality – which you could say epitomises the phrase ‘all fur coat and no knickers’.
There have been numerous productions of A Taste of Honey since it opened on stage over 60 years ago and the National present a good version here, which really highlights the comedy and pathos of Delaney’s work.
A Taste of Honey is on at The Lowry until Saturday 21st September then begins a UK tour, further information can be found here.