Robert Tanitch reviews A Taste of Honey at National Theatre/Lyttelton
18-year-old Shelagh Delaney saw Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme in Manchester, when it was on its pre-London tour, and thought “I can do better than that.” She sent her play to Joan Littlewood, who staged it at Theatre Royal at Stratford East in 1958 in her characteristic Theatreworkshop manner with musical interludes and lots of asides to the audience. The cast included Avis Bunnage, Frances Cuka and Murray Melvin.
The play, a slice of squalid, working class, Northern life, is set in Salford, A teenage schoolgirl is pregnant by a young black sailor and is looked after by a homosexual art student. Her mother has deserted her for her latest no-good fancy man who sports an eye-patch.
A Taste of Honey was admired for its gritty realism, its good humour and its compassion. It got rave reviews, transferred to the West End, ran for a year and was made into an award-winning film by Tony Richardson in 1961 with Rita Tushingham, Dora Bryan and Murray Melvin.
It has been regularly revived in the regions ever since. Bijan Sheibani’s production for the National Theatre is its first London revival since its premiere. The Lytellton stage and auditorium is far too big for it. Hildegard Bechtler’s setting overpowers the actors.
Kate O’Flynn is excellent as the teenager. Lesley Sharp’s mother, a volatile, ranting semi-whore, tends towards caricature. The play used to end with her off-hand acceptance that her grandchild will be black. Here she practically vomits at the idea. The production’s most moving moment is when mum brutally gives the art student his marching orders.
Interestingly, Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme is about to get a revival at the Finborough Theatre, its first since its much-panned premier.