029 – A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney
Published 15th July
Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it premiered in 1958 at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, East London. It’s portrayal of a working class single mother and her daughter batting to survive on the margins of society in post-war Manchester was radical in its frankness and form, and also for boldly featuring a mixed-race relationship as well as a young homosexual in central roles. The play was all the more striking for being written by an eighteen-year old girl from Salford who had recently failed her school exams, but who was determined to write about the world she knew and that she did not see represented in the literature or drama she devoured.
Delaney speculatively sent a draft of her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal in London, who recognised the raw talent in the text and helped to develop the play, employing her trademark improvisation techniques and adding music and dance to create a self-consciously theatrical production. The result was an historic production that went on to transfer to London’s West End for a long run, and then onto New York in 1960, before being made into a film in 1962.
A Taste of Honey was ahead of its time, as confirmed by the fact that it has become a staple in the dramatic canon, most recently in a wonderful production at the National Theatre in 2014, which was revived at the Trafalgar Studios and on tour in 2019. The play continues to ask questions relevant to our time on attitudes to sex, race, class and gender.
I’m delighted to be joined in this episode by Nadine Holdsworth, Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Warwick. Nadine has not only written extensively about the theatre of Joan Littlewood, she herself also appeared in a production A Taste of Honey when she was at university and the play has been special for her ever since.
Nadine Holdsworth is Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Warwick. Her book English Theatre and Social Abjection: A Divided Nation published in 2020 examines how contemporary drama presents groups and issues that divide our society. She has also written two books on Joan Littlewood, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre published by Cambridge University Press in 2011, and a volume on Joan Littlewood in the Routledge series of Performance Practitioners. Her research addresses questions of representation, participation, citizenship, political change and cultural value. She is a currently working on a new body of research on arts and homelessness.
The Footnotes to our episode on A Taste of Honey include thoughts on the sins of the mother, and Shelagh Delaney’s real people.
It is 1789 and a group of convicts in the newly-founded colony of Botany Bay in Australia are assembled to put on a production of George Farquhar’s Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer. The true story of this unlikely theatrical enterprise is the subject of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s award-winning play, Our Country’s Good, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 1988 almost exactly 200 years after the events it portrays. The play is a vivid portrait of the volatile new settlement in New South Wales, which raises timeless questions about what makes for a country’s good: the exercise of justice, the iniquities of class, the value of education and culture, and particularly of the redemptive power of theatre itself.
It made complete logical sense to follow our last episode on The Recruiting Officer with this wonderful play, and even more sense to invite Director Matt Beresford back to talk us through it.
George Farquhar’s rollicking Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer is ostensibly a portrait of officers engaged in the nefarious art of impressing men into the army in the country town of Shrewsbury, but it is as much a tale of the local ladies themselves recruiting for lovers and husbands. The classic comic satire of love and war, and sex and deception was first performed at Drury Lane in 1706, and went on to become one of the most frequently performed plays of the 18th century and a staple of education curricula and theatre programming ever since.
Director Matt Beresford joins us to assess the ‘recruiting officers” respective strategies and successes.
Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.
Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …