A Taste of Honey

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.

Interview | Jodie Prenger | A Taste of Honey

The National Theatre brings Shelagh Delaney’s ground-breaking play A Taste of Honey to The Lowry this month as part of a new autumn UK tour. Returning the northern classic back to its roots, Bijan Sheibani’s production takes an enthralling look at working-class life in post-war Salford.

Jodie Prenger takes on the iconic role of Helen, a single mother who takes off with a car salesman leaving her feisty teenager Jo to fend for herself. Jo’s relationship with a sailor comes unstuck when after promising to marry her he heads off back to sea leaving art student Geoff to take on the role of surrogate parent. Things get even more interesting when Geoff innocently calls on Helen to help, opening the doors for this unconventional set up to unravel.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Jodie Prenger during rehearsals to hear a little more about the production and what it means to be tackling such an exciting role written by Delaney when she was just 19.

I first watched it about 8 years ago now, a dear friend of mine Bobby Delaney (no relation) gave it to me to read and I absolutely fell in love with it.” Jodie explains “…it was so real, so honest and so tender. It was the mother and daughter relationship that really got me, for me, my Nan and all that side of the family were all from Manchester so it was just like hearing my Nan’s voice. The feistiness and the fight that my Nan had I saw a lot of that in Helen.”

Prenger has played many strong women on stage including the ultimate Scouse independent woman Shirley Valentine; we asked Jodie what is was about northern writing that makes for such a memorable and original piece. “Northern writing just has a real warmth…it’s witty, it’s tender, there’s a zest and spiciness to these strong female characters who I think are always interesting to watch in theatre, in film and TV. The way Shelagh Delaney wrote is just so great that the story comes to life and I just love reading it and watching it.” Explaining what makes the North so special Jodie said, “There’s a beating heart within the North, in Manchester and Salford and within the play itself. Even though people are up against so much they still fight and strive and still have that warm genuine humour. It’s like me and my Mum we can be battling royal but then one of us will say ‘oh have you finished then’ it’s a type of humour that you don’t often find in every corner of the UK.”

The play was famously seen a very taboo when it first premiered due to the themes and characters, “We’ve come a long way but we still have a long way to go, the cast were told they may have to evacuate the theatre when it was first put on, you’d not have that happen now, that wouldn’t even be entertained today but back then it was. I think we’re getting better well at least I hope we are. Yes back then it was taboo and although not so much now it’s still very, very poignant”.

Aged just 19 when she wrote this debut piece, Prenger sees Delaney as a courageous writer, “I think she unleashed a really strong genuine female voice which around that period was unknown. It was very brave, I think it’s the same kind of woman’s voice we’d hear today but then it seemed shocking and taboo.”

The role of Helen has famously been played by several incredible actresses including Angela Landsbury and Avis Bunnage, Jodie explained how she goes about making a character people know so well her own. “You do feel the pressure of those who have gone before you but that’s what gives you the drive to work hard and gives you the confidence to decide how you are going to create your character. It’s about my Nan’s ethic almost of rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in. It’s important you develop the character how you want to develop her and that comes from working with your fellow cast members. I think she’s real; the only way you can play a character like her is by playing the truth.” 

Drawing on her experiences with her own family when it comes to the mother daughter scenes Jodie states “Making the mother daughter relationship believable I think comes from taking your experiences and using them. Taking experience and inspiration from characters you’ve met along the way. Definitely the relationship you have yourself with your mother, sometimes I find although Helen and Jo are polar opposites they are also so similar I think that’s why they come up against each other so much.”

Set famously in the 1950’s Prenger explained how those elements will still very much be present but with some additional styling from designer Hildegard Bechtler. “It’s the same production team who worked on the 2014 production at the National, but what they are really, really set on is keeping those elements of the 1950’s but making it poignant for today. There’s music like Nina Simone, Peggy Lee and Amy Winehouse, there’s live jazz, there’s folk music. The aesthetic of Amy Winehouse really influences the design, her style, look and music. The costumes will be 1950’s but not so much starched dresses etc that it couldn’t be any other time but will hint at modern day as well, same with the props and set too.”

Launching the tour in Salford the birthplace of Shelagh Delaney feels appropriate; we were interested to hear Jodie’s thoughts on what her character Helen would make of 2019 Salford. “My brother Marco lives nearby and I can’t believe how much it’s changed, perhaps she’d find the nearest gin bar, she’d have a great choice. I’m sure she’d love it; you always love home don’t you. That’s what Shelagh Delaney was like, she says there’s not many places she’d like to live, maybe London but then she’d always come back home. Home is home.”

A Taste of Honey opens at The Lowry on Friday 13th September and runs until Saturday 21st September, tickets available https://thelowry.com/whats-on/nt-a-taste-of-honey/

 

 

 

 

Home, I’m Darling

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Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Fresh from its Olivier Award success Laura Wade’s new play Home, I’m Darling arrives at the Lowry this week as part of a limited UK tour.

Co-produced by The National Theatre and Theatr Clwyd, Home, I’m Darling takes us into the perfectly stylised 1950’s home of Judy & Johnny; their bliss seemingly as bright as their primrose kitchen. Their marmalade is homemade while their gin gimlets are freshly poured as life in their 50’s bubble bounces along; that is until the rose tinted glasses begin to slip as this cleverly crafted comedy moves into choppier waters as the subtle analysis of gender divide and nostalgic perfection begins.

Judy’s made her choice: rebelling against her upbringing in a feminist commune eating lentil lasagne she now likes things shipshape, living a life of domestic bliss as a picture perfect housewife complete with pastel prom dress & devilled eggs on tap. While her mother argues against this misguided nostalgia insisting that the only people who were truly happy in the 1950’s where white, straight, men as choice, tolerance and acceptance were in very short supply.

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Designer Anna Fleischle has created a magnificent 1950’s haven. The two level set a perfect home with living room and kitchen downstairs neatly topped by a bedroom and bathroom all connected by a central staircase. Director Tamara Harvey ensures the cast make full use of the visually stunning set as each corner of the house is explored and inhabited. The genius scene changes where cast members jive their way around the house add immensely to the charm of this initially playful piece.

Katherine Parkinson is excellent as the insecure domestic goddess Judy, insisting that her feminism is evidenced in the life choices she makes while she attempts to live harmoniously in an inaccurately imagined era.

Jo Stone-Fewings gives a strong performance as husband Johnny, increasingly frustrated with this nostalgic domesticity and what it means for their marriage.

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Susan Brown shines as Judy’s Mum Sylvia, exasperated by her daughters life choices and desperate for her to start living life in the here and now, her scalpel-sharp monologue in Act II is sublime.

The strong cast work together wonderfully keeping the audience guessing throughout as to where this fascinating story will take us. Laura Wade’s script is both generous in its humour and sharp in its observations. Once the saccharine surface has been scratched the grit and relevance of this black comedy effectively take hold. Judy of course insists she is happy but the cracks in her gingham palace quickly show as money begins to run out while the fantasy lifestyle becomes a prison of her own making.

Judy’s indulgence for her ‘hobby’ which she clings onto for far too long impacts not only on her own but the life of husband Johnny who feels emasculated and embittered by his wife’s endless care and devotion. The constantly shifting perspectives engage as well as entertain; add to this a hefty dose of humour, superb cast and stunning set and you have a uniquely brilliant production.

Home I’m Darling is on at The Lowry until Saturday 27th April tickets available here.

Hedda Gabler


Following on from a much celebrated sold-out run at the National Theatre earlier this year this new version of Ibsen’s iconic Hedda Gabler arrives at the Lowry until Saturday 4th November.

Reimagined by Olivier and Tony Award-winner Patrick Marber and directed by Ivo van Hove, also an Olivier and Tony award-winner, the production is modernised and accessible yet still stays true to Ibsen’s original work.

Newlywed Hedda (Lizzy Watts) is bored, admitting she ‘settled’ because she felt old, the absolute last thing she actually feels by this marriage and her life however is settled. She’s retuned to a place that suffocating and soulless, a new home where nothing yet has it’s place, certainly not Hedda.

Overcome constantly by the desire to control and take charge of everyone and everything around her Hedda thrives on the destruction of harmony. Constantly battling the demons within, Hedda’s release seems to come from hurting, upsetting and even destroying others. She can be cruel yet is clearly damaged, sharp yet desperately vulnerable, wild yet ultimately trapped.


Hedda wants to be free, she wants the freedom she sees men have yet everyone wants a piece of her, they want to touch her, to be with her, to dictate what she does with her body, to claim ownership. Marber’s focus on Hedda’s relationships offers a real depth to this piece as an audience we try to understand and even sympathise with the damaged, manipulative and often cruel Hedda. She tempts the alcoholic to drink, twists concern for mistrust and family love for suffocating meddling.

Lizzy Watts portrays Hedda beautifully, she shines in the cleverly reimagined production, she is feisty yet vulnerable, struggling with demons which consume her entirely, she is cruel yet clever captivating the audience entirely as she physically embodies the torment and complexity of Hedda, she looks uncomfortable in her own skin as the world weighs down all around her and her inner turmoil threatens to consume. Supported by an incredibly strong cast this is a truly impressive performance.

National Theatre continue to raise the bar high with this bold, atmospheric and entirely engaging production. Jan Versweyveld’s set and lighting design are both superb, the apartment is a sparsely furnished box, which we never leave, almost becoming asylum like as the piece develops and further illustration of Hedda’s confinement and absolute boredom with life where even the timid Thea has the courage to follow her heart. Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” plays between scenes, a further gentle nod to Hedda’s dissatisfaction with her lot.


National Theatre entirely succeed in making a play familiar to so many feel entirely fresh and unpredictable. Powerful, intense and utterly captivating.

On at The Lowry until Saturday 4th November tickets available here www.thelowry.com/events/hedda-gabler

Jane Eyre

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First staged at the Bristol Old Vic, where the story was performed over two evenings, director Sally Cookson brings her acclaimed production on tour, presenting Bronte’s much loved classic as a thrilling and inventive performance beautifully staged in the Lowry’s Lyric theatre.

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While many will be familiar with the story of Jane Eyre for some it’s one of those novels that you may have always intended to read but never quite got there, it is the biography of orphan girl Jane Eyre (Nadia Clifford) and bares striking similarity to Brontë’s own life, raised in the North of England Jane is taken in by her Uncle after the heartbreaking death of her parents, much to the disgust of his cruel wife, Jane’s Aunt, Mrs Reed (Lynda Rooke). When Jane’s Uncle becomes unwell, he asks Mrs Reed to promise to raise Jane as her own, sadly although she provides a house for Jane to dwell in she certainly doesn’t offer the love and warmth of the promised home subjecting Jane to a life of misery and abuse from not just her Aunt but her Cousins as well. At 10 years old she shipped off to Lowood, a school for orphaned girls, where she continues to experience a cruel and unforgiving life, despite this Jane manages to form a strong bond with her school friend Helen Burns (Hannah Bristow), tragedy however is never far away and Jane suffers more gut-wrenching loss.

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Eventually Jane becomes a teacher at Lowood but yearns for change and adventure, she advertises herself as a Governess and is soon summoned to Thornfield Hall to educate Edward Rochester’s (Tim Delap) French ward Adele. As the developing friendship between Jane and Rochester begins to build strange happenings within the house start to occur risking both the safety and the future of both Jane and Rochester.

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The staging of this production is immediately striking upon entering the theatre; set designer Michael Vale uses wooden pallets to create various levels and platforms accompanied by multiple ladders and steps which are used to maximum effect by the cast. Aideen Malone’s lighting design is bold and dynamic, creating and changing the atmosphere dramatically throughout the production.

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The small cast take on a multitude of roles throughout the play and are magnificent, their characterisation outstanding and utterly captivating. They strive to ensure we see Brontë’s work is just as relevant today as it was then; they deliver each and every character with commitment and style. The piece feels fresh and inspiring as the spirited and strong Jane fights for her own freedom and fulfilment. Jane is told early on in the play after being punished by her Aunt in the red room, “Perhaps you should learn to keep your passions under control” something we soon realise is a thing Jane in order to be true to herself could never do. Nadia Clifford is superb in the role of Jane, yearning for liberty and adventure her spirit is strong and her need for fulfilment, physically, spiritually and mentally never wavers. Clifford is mesmerising, charismatic and captivating you immediately warm to her and are desperate for her to succeed. Sally Cookson uses several cast members to verbalise Jane’s inner thoughts, this works beautifully, illustrating just how strong and determined Jane truly is as she battles with herself to do what she believes is right as heart-breaking as it may be.

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Melanie Marshall as Bertha Mason, the ‘lunatic in the attic,’ is superb, frequently appearing through musical interludes her vocals are hauntingly brilliant and pack a real punch. The effect feels almost like a musical narrative, with hugely inventive and highly original song choices that flow beautifully from one scene to the next offering more depth to an already magnificent production. The entire cast give their all; they make for a tight ensemble and move fluidly from one role to the next, accompanied by on stage musicians who add a further creative layer to this inventive piece.

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Jane Eyre is a truly exceptional piece of theatre, groundbreaking and utterly captivating. Brontë’s much loved masterpiece is delivered with freshness and intelligence, you can’t help but think how pleased she would be to see her Jane portrayed with such heart and soul. The National Theatre in partnership with Bristol Old Vic once again succeed in bringing a true masterpiece to life, full of passion, intensity and originality, an absolute must see.

Photo credits Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

On at the Lowry until Saturday 15th April https://www.thelowry.com/events/jane-eyre

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time

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Returning to The Lowry as part of a new 25 city tour, The National Theatre’s multi-award winning production The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time, is as spellbinding and incredibly moving as ever. Adapted by Stockport born Simon Stephens and directed by Manchester’s own Marianne Elliott, Curious introduces us to a very, very special person, the utterly extraordinary, Christopher Boone.

 

The story follows fifteen year old Christopher (Scott Reid) upon his alarming discovery of the murder of his neighbour’s dog Wellington, whom he has found speared with a garden fork. Christopher, wrongfully under suspicion makes it his mission to solve the mystery of the murder by documenting the facts he discovers through his thorough and detailed investigations. Christopher is a complex yet truly remarkable boy, like many autistic people Christopher sees the world very differently to perhaps you and I, for one he truly ‘sees’ the world, he notices each and everything around him, he observes and processes every physical detail in his environment, colours, sounds, textures, everything Christopher sees is in exact and minute detail. His brain is as complex as it is fascinating, metaphors don’t make sense and people are generally confusing.

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Scott Reid as Christopher is fantastic, he makes such a physically and emotionally challenging role appear effortless, he is hugely likeable and engages the audience from his very first scene, you quite literally fall in love with Reid’s Christopher, you want him desperately to succeed and to be happy, safe and secure. The relationship he has with Siobhan (Lucianne McEvoy) his teacher is beautiful; she calms and soothes Christopher when things get too much and he stops being able to process the endless information his brain is constantly receiving, more importantly she totally and utterly believes in him.

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As the story develops we soon realise that Christopher like many people on the Autistic Spectrum is uncomfortable with touch, the amount of physical contact he will engage in is minimal and must be on his terms, this is beautifully directed and makes for some of the most poignant and emotional scenes in whole production as we witness Christopher’s parents battle to simply comfort their child.

Director Marianne Elliot along with Movement Directors Scott Graham, Steven Hoggett and Adrian Sutton have created something truly unique with their cast, from weightlessly floating through space to the trauma of using the unwelcoming and chaotic underground the way the cast move is mesmerising. The organisation and exact movement of the cast is outstanding, their fluid movement so intricate.

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Complementing the brilliant cast is a truly stunning set, it is in effect part of the cast as it is so involved in every aspect of what happens on stage, the cast and the set at times almost become one, moving fluidly together to astonishing effect. Designer Bunny Christie, Lighting Designer Paule Constable, Video Designer Finn Ross and Sound Designer Ian Dickinson have created something truly magical here.

Curious is a production that leaves an huge impact, at times heart-warming and funny it is also through provoking and incredibly moving, without doubt an absolute must see.

On at The Lowry until Saturday 4th February

http://www.thelowry.com/event/the-curious-incident-of-the-dog-in-the-night-time