What is the taste of honey to which Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play refers? Is it brassy single mother Helen’s brief flirtation with matrimony? Is it her schoolgirl daughter Jo’s short love affair with a black sailor (which ends in pregnancy)? Is it the unorthodox domestic contentment that Jo then finds with a gay male friend? Or perhaps it is the childhood freedom about which Helen reminisces at the end of the play? One thing is for certain, none of these glimpses of happiness lasts: for both mother and daughter, the road is hard.
But while Delaney’s play documents the squalid disorder in which they live, her drama is not miserable. Rather it is charged with perplexed outrage: she spies in these women a bruised vitality and a rebellious refusal to conform to the dullness and drudgery they are expected to embrace. Society in the 1950s would censure all the characters in Delaney’s play, but the 19-year-old novice playwright depicts them with clear-sighted sympathy, flaws and all. Beneath this apparent slice of life, she catches the undercurrents that are to cause such huge sociological change in the coming decade. It’s a remarkably perceptive play, if a flawed one.
We join Helen and Jo as they move into a grimly dilapidated flat in 1950s Salford, Manchester. With her bottle-blonde hair and sharp tongue, Helen doesn’t come over as much of a homemaker – and sure enough, she has soon run off with a man, abandoning teenage Jo. It’s Geoffrey, a gentle, gay art student, who comes to Jo’s aid, acting as the mother that she never had. This wonderful, unconventional set-up however is short-lived.
Bijan Sheibani’s revival is sympathetic but fitful and sometimes laboured. The text is baggy and long-winded in places and the staging strains then to stay afloat. The cast struggle at times with audibility and look a little lost on Hildegard Bechtler’s imposing but limiting urban set.
Performances, though, are tremendous. Lesley Sharp is brittle, volatile and finally vicious as the feckless Helen, a woman brutally aware that her stock is falling. Kate O’Flynn is truculent, defiant and vulnerable as Jo, a love-starved loner thrust unwillingly into motherhood. And Harry Hepple’s quietly watchful Geoffrey conveys that he needs a home as much as Jo does. For all the lumps and bumps in the play, it still emerges as fresh and startlingly observant. You never see the outside world, but you sense its oppressive influence on these vibrant, marginal characters at every turn.