A Taste of Honey leaves a bad sting in the mouth

When I found out Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey was to be staged in Mansfield, I anticipated a fine serving of gritty British theatre that would transport me back to the heady days of kitchen sink realism and angry young men. How disappointed was I then in the Sell A Door Company’s rendition at the Palace Theatre last week? Quite is the answer, writes Graham Parker .

Delaney’s play and subsequent film took their place alongside Osborne’s Look Back in Anger as a seminal text in the early 1960s when comment from the stage achieved social change; for some reason Sell A Door seemed to think it would be a good idea to play for laughs instead.

The play follows the story of 17 year old schoolgirl Jo, her alcohol-fixated mother and a bunch of social misfits that surround the pair. Jill Regan played Jo with warmth and a passive character that made her look impotent in her grubby Manchester bedsit. Helen, Jo’s mother was played by Sara Mason who I fear studied the film and Dora Bryan’s demonic matriarch. Bryan’s grating, screeching voice became her trademark. It’s hard to copy something like that without looking fake – Mason would have been better directed to make the role her own, rather than trying to emulate another actress.

When Jo becomes pregnant by a black sailor and Helen leaves her for another man to add to her list of failed relationships, Jo seeks comfort and companionship with gay art student Geoffrey, played by Robert Southworth. Southworth’s limp-wristed character at least stopped short of giving us a stereotypical “queen” and several of his scenes with Jo were quite touching. My major disappointment with this production lay in the direction. Helen was taken to doing asides to the audience that came straight out of pantomime, which overshadowed the nasty, self-centred side of her nature. There was no real sense of personal, gender, sex, race or class conflict – even Helen’s comment that she would drown Jo’s baby because it was black brought laughs from the stalls!

Sean Richardson as Peter, Helen’s latest fling failed for me as the thuggish boor, he just did not convince me that he was connected in anyway with Helen and his angry outbursts were not tempered so as to make them effective.

Sometimes humour can, indeed must be used to offset hard to swallow social comment from the stage. When the main discourse between players and audience makes the latter uncomfortable in their seats, that’s when you apply the laughter to take the heat of things and apply balance. This production gave not enough of the former and too much of the latter.

I had hoped to be sated by gritty drama, yet left hungry and wanting more – but not of this production.