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Review: A Taste of Honey at the Royal Exchange Theatre is ‘timeless and empowering’

Shelagh Delaney's timeless classic, a Taste of Honey is currently at the Royal Exchange Theatre
A Taste of Honey Royal Exchange Theatre

The Royal Exchange Theatre simmered with a night of raw emotion and gritty realism with Shelagh Delaney‘s timeless classic, A Taste of Honey.

The play’s title is a reference to the story of Jonathan, the eldest son of King Saul, eating honey and being punished for it.

A classic kitchen sink drama, A Taste of Honey set the wheels in motion for shows like Coronation Street and Eastenders, which have been going strong ever since.

A Taste of Honey at the Royal Exchange

Jill Halfpenny plays a brilliant Helen Credit: Johan Persson

Directed by Emma Baggott, this production masterfully captured the essence of working-class life in late 1950s Salford.

Emma and actress Jill Halfpenny (Helen) highlight the ongoing challenges women face in society, particularly as mothers.

The play’s depiction of Helen’s desire for more than just motherhood resonates with modern audiences who grapple with similar aspirations and societal expectations.

Jill Halfpenny plays a brilliant Helen, a selfish mother who is vain, uncaring and cold to her daughter Josephine (Rowan Robinson).

She struts around, is extremely rude, and is often extremely drunk.

She doesn’t provoke much warmth. Her nuanced performance brings to life the complexities of a mother caught between her desires and responsibilities to her daughter.

Rowan Robinson as Josephine

Josephine and Geoffrey Credit: Johan Persson

The play follows Josephine’s life after she gets pregnant by an absent father.

Jo walks a tightrope of a balance of vulnerability and razor-tongued resilience, regularly lashing Peter (and sometimes Geoffrey) with her sharp wit.

She is exhausted by her mother’s transient lifestyle and missing love and has to figure everything out for herself.

Rowan captures Jo’s inner turmoil with authenticity, allowing the audience to empathise with her struggles and root for her resilience.

As Jo navigates the complexities of love, family, and impending motherhood, her portrayal remains grounded and authentic.

The chemistry with the other characters, particularly with Geoffrey, played by David Moorst, adds depth to the dynamics on stage, drawing the audience further into Jo’s world.

David Moorst as Geoffrey

A Taste of Honey - Royal Exchange
Josephine and Geoffrey Credit: Johan Persson

Geoffrey is a kind and empathetic person, offering support to Jo during her pregnancy and becoming a close friend to her in the process.

He is vulnerable himself, an art student who finds himself thrown out of his accommodation and another lost soul.

Despite facing rejection and misunderstanding due to his sexuality, Geoffrey remains steadfast in his friendship with Jo, providing a sense of stability in her turbulent life.

David Moorst’s characterisation is warm and full of moments of sardonic comedy. We are all rooting for him.

Moorst’s portrayal of Geoffrey exudes both charm and sensitivity, capturing the character’s warmth and generosity with authenticity.

His interactions with Jo were imbued with genuine care and affection, creating a palpable chemistry between the two characters on stage.

Andrew Sheridan as Peter and Obadiah as Jimmie

Peter, initially portrayed as a potential source of stability for Helen and Jo, ultimately reveals himself to be driven more by self-interest and sexual desires than genuine affection.

Played by Andrew Sheridan, Peter perfects the alchi-sleezeball mould, and like Helen, you just cannot help but despise him. It’s a powerful performance.

Despite proposing to Helen and offering her financial security, Peter’s intentions are called into question as he quickly loses interest in her once they are married. He is quickly sussed out by Josephine.

His pursuit of other women and dismissal of Helen’s feelings highlight a cynical view of love and marriage, where personal gratification takes precedence over the emotional connection.

Jimmie, Jo’s boyfriend, on the other hand, offers a different perspective on love and relationships.

While his affection for Jo is evident in his gestures of care, such as trying to cure her cold and offering companionship over Christmas, there is a sense of transience to their relationship.

You trust him, then that trust is broken as he disappears.

Sound and Stage Design

A Taste of Honey at the Royal Exchange Theatre
The stage design

The dark subject matter of the play is interspersed with the angelic voice of Nishla Smith, who plays the jazz singer.

She breaks up the dark narrative with a beautiful voice, renditions of Dirty Old Town hauntingly filling the silence of The Royal Exhange’s round.

Set-wise, designer Peter Butler took a trip to Salford to get some research ideas.

He checked out remnants of forgotten rusting 50s architecture, clothing, art, books and music specific to that period, incorporating it into the design.

The set is sparse, a gritty apartment in Salford with shabby furnishings showcasing a palpable current of restlessness echoed in the play’s characters.

There is a weathered carousel structure hanging above the stage which must have been quite a challenge to put together.

It adds some dynamism to proceedings, whilst flashing lights that dim and explode add to the drama of the story and enhance the storytelling and the theatrical experience..

So what did we think?

The issues which made A Taste of Honey such a controversial play are no longer controversial. It’s no longer controversial to have a bi-racial baby or to be a young single mother.

The play’s enduring relevance lies in its exploration of timeless themes and universal human experience.

The underlying themes  still ring true, reminding us that despite societal progress, human relationships and dynamics remain complex and multifaceted.

The intricate bond between a mother and daughter, as well as the dynamics of romantic relationships and friendships, continue to resonate with audiences, offering insights into the complexities of love, loss, and resilience.

A Taste of Honey shines a spotlight on themes of poverty, class divisions, and societal expectations, which remain pertinent in contemporary society.

By providing representation to marginalised voices and characters often overlooked in mainstream media, the play offers a platform for their stories to be heard and validated, fostering empathy and understanding among audiences.

While the controversies of A Taste of Honey may have evolved, its enduring relevance lies in its ability to reflect the human condition and provoke thought and introspection long after the final curtain falls.

By highlighting the experiences of working-class people, A Taste of Honey provides a platform for their stories to be heard and validated, resonating with audiences who may see themselves reflected in the characters on stage.

It’s a fantastic production, brilliantly directed that will have you feeling hatred, anger, sympathy, sadness and just about everything in between.

It’s a timeless and empowering piece of theatre that continues to captivate audiences with its compelling storytelling and resonant themes.

It will have you celebrating society’s rejected underdogs. And with such a brilliant and talented cast, classy direction and superb set design, why not treat yourself to A Taste of Honey too?

Tickets for A Taste of Honey at the Royal Exchange

You can get tickets to see A Taste of Honey at the Royal Exchange by clicking here

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