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.
Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.
Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.
Garry Essendine is a star of the London stage with an ego and celebrity lifestyle to match. But as he passes forty his excesses threaten to bring down the entire structure of his professional and personal life. Essendine is the thinly disguised alter-ego of playwright and performer Noel Coward, whose tussle with his own fame is the subject of his classic 3-act, 4-door farce Present Laughter. First performed in 1942 with Coward himself as the lead, the play has since attracted a glittering list of stars who could not resist the flamboyant turn, including most recently Andrew Scott in an Olivier award-winning performance at the Old Vic in 2019. Joining me to reexamine Coward’s ‘light comedy’ in the 21st century is theatrical agent and Coward aficionado, Alan Brodie.
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 …