As casting goes, it was smart of the Royal Exchange to plump for Sally Lindsay to play the "semi-whore" Helen in Shelagh Delaney's shabby little Salford shocker A Taste of Honey. After all it occupies the same heartland as Coronation Street in which Lindsay created the local favourite Shelly Unwin, a fixture behind the bar at the Rovers Return. Now as the alcoholic, feckless mother of Jo, Lindsay is propping up the other side of the bar in one of several 50th anniversary productions celebrating the premiere of Delaney's uncompromising play, written when she was just 18.
Its sensational success at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop led to the West End, New York and the much-loved 1961 film version with Dora Bryan and Rita Tushingham as mother and daughter. But half-a-century on many of the social issues addressed in the play are no longer taboo although several of the play's still relevant themes – child neglect, teenage pregnancy, loneliness and bigotry – leave a sour taste.
Director Jo Combes has married the playtext with aural snapshots of Manchester's musical history via Wigan Casino and the Hacienda, and the play is underscored live every night with Manchester sounds – ranging from Oasis to Morrissey – by local DJ Jon Winstanley. Several of Morrisey's songs were inspired by Delaney's work and her youthful face appeared twice on Smiths' record sleeves. Combes and sound designer Gerry Marsden must have had a lot of fun putting together the music but although some of the mixing is very slick – Winstanley is positioned on the first balcony, a shadowy figure hidden behind advertising hoarding and only illuminated during the music – it feels contrived. Snatches of numbers by The Stone Roses, The Bees, Inspiral Carpets and Joy Division ("Love Will Tear Us Apart") certainly bring the production up to date but the play remains firmly rooted in the 1950s. The interaction between stage and DJ – like the interaction between the actors and the audience – is a conceptual polish that, instead of adding a finish, gets in the way of theatrical interest.
With far less intrusive music the second half is more fluent and the characters more three-dimensional. Lindsay's self-absorbed Helen is larger than life, the tart whose heart is open to any man but never her own daughter. "I never thought about you," she tells Jo, "never 'ave done when I'm happy." Practising dysfunctional parenting on a grand scale, Helen has little to offer her adolescent daughter. Jodie McNee's compelling portrayal of the wide-eyed girl – her pinched face expressing child-like neediness with messed-up despair – places her as both a waif and a stray but with attitude. Adam Gillen's Geof, the gay art student on whom she comes to depend, turns in a truly astonishing performance, croaking like an old man, squealing like a demented mouse and mincing around the raised acting area like a caricature. But his dignified departure when Helen bursts back into Jo's life is heart-wrenching. Paul Popplewell’s sleazy Peter and Marcel McCalla’s winsome, black sailor Jimmie add the macho ingredients to the searing encounters between Helen and Jo.
If the evening sometimes feels a bit long and drawn out, there are some memorable moments including the dream-like dance sequence just before the interval in which Katherine Taylor's choreography brings the characters into a harmony they never experience in this grim slice of life. On a set of four, curtained window frames, Ben Stones has tried to convey the crumminess of the Salford tenement while street lamps are lowered to convey the outside scenes. Some of Delaney's themes may feel dated but her writing still glitters dangerously and wittily.
A Taste of Honey remains a passionate statement about real people trapped in poverty, deprived of ambition and vulnerable to manipulation by the fickleness of others. When Helen returns to care for the heavily pregnant Jo you sense that this attempt at a nurturing mother-daughter relationship won't last a scrap longer than any previous effort.
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