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A Taste of Honey

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir presents, A TASTE OF HONEY, by Shelagh Delaney, in the Upstairs Belvoir Theatre, Surry Hills. July 21 – August 19.

A TASTE OF HONEY, by Shelagh Delaney, an English play, written 60 years ago, in 1958.

The first production of this play came under the care and Direction of the iconic Joan Littlewood – a woman leading a new way to present work for the theatre with the gusto of a vigorous iconoclast wanting to enliven, and to breathe in an energy force to the experience of the theatre, as a vital life force of relevance and the three E’s: Enlightenment, Entertainment, Ecstasy. This happened at the famous Theatre Royal, Stratford East – its highpoint being the famous and influential production of OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR, in 1961.

Kitchen Sink Realism, a reactionary force against the ‘well made’ play, epitomised by the work of Terence Rattigan (THE WINSLOW BOY (1946), THE DEEP BLUE SEA (1952), SEPARATE TABLES (1955), began with the shattering force of John Osborne’s LOOK BACK IN ANGER in 1956. A TASTE OF HONEY arrived in 1958. Later, in 1959, Arnold Wesker’s regional kitchen sink plays such as ROOTS cemented this ‘revolutionary’ movement.

Essentially, A TASTE OF HONEY, is of the ‘well made play’ pattern but its content was a shock of the new for the audiences: a savage fractious relationship between a Mother (Helen) and Daughter (Jo), both figures shifting the conventional moral compass to shocking antagonistic statement after statement within the social context of the times – the 1950’s; a sexual relationship between a much older woman (Helen) and a much younger man (Peter); a sexual relationship between a white girl (J0) and a black man (Jimmie), shown on stage, resulting in an unmarried girl’s pregnancy (Jo is only 16); and the prejudices and co-dependent consequences of a life shared with a homosexual man (Geoffrey) and a pregnant 16 year old girl (Jo); all of this set in the provinces of a working class ‘voice’ of the regional city of East Salford, part of Greater Manchester, instead of the usual West End middle class vacuum. Add Joan Littlewood’s ground breaking production tropes of a live jazz dance band on stage and contemporary dance interludes, and here was a startling popular hit.

The British film industry erupted into the New Wave with the Woodfall Films, with the same objectives of telling working class stories, set up by Theatre Director, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, with the support of American, Harry Saltzman, in the late 1950’s and all of the 60’s. It began with LOOK BACK IN ANGER, in 1959, with A TASTE OF HONEY, made in 1961, becoming its first and best commercial and critical success. Woodfall’s Artistic acme was to come, with the Tony Richarson iconoclastic film style for TOM JONES (1964) – nominated for 10 Oscars, winning 4.

A TASTE OF HONEY, was and is an iconic force of its time – that Ms Delaney, who wrote this play when only 19, subsequently, had no follow-up play of greater significance might be part of the patriarchal environment of the time – both Osborne and Wesker, for instance, having, relatively, and in contrast, prolific careers of produced plays to follow.

The Belvoir production of A TASTE OF HONEY, Directed by Eamon Flack, has sufficient qualities of production – with Design elements that are flashy. Some might argue: Too flashy? Drawing attention to themselves. Costumes that look deliberately like costumes not clothes, contrasting, in affect, with the ultra realistic Set Design grunge, both by Mel Page. Lighting, from Damien Cooper, that in its key offers become mega-theatre statements of Art Gallery quality of a painterly pictorial beauty. Swinging Contemporary Sound Composition (of a 2018 period affect), by Stefan Gregory, that is not always served well by his own Sound Design locations. All of this topped with Movement/Choreography interludes by Kate Champion, extremely vital but show-offy, that feel, conspicuously, grafted onto the play.

One of the problems with the production is that there is not really an assured sense of Place or Time. Are we in East Salford or a suburb of one of Australia’s cities? For, no matter Mr Flack’s tepid geographic re-namings of some of the places in the play, the other textual contents of the play stays definitely Northern Hemisphere and the language rhythms remain powerfully un-Australian.

Genevieve Lemon – the Mother figure, Helen – is one of Australia’s great actors and this performance is good but is not quite possessed by the actor, which is one of her usual gifts, (remember her WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? last year?), and I wondered, WHY? Is It because the need for belief in a character, that will permit ‘possession’, has to be in the authentic ownership of the language, both its music and content? Is it that the adopted Australian sound created by this company of actors, under the Direction of Mr Flack, is not compatible to the music of the writing? The text of regional English Helen, and the others occupying this play, is at war with this Belvoir company’s Australian musical utterances, compounded by the Aussie lack of transferable ‘knowledge’ from a culture that is not theirs, to their own, both in the sense of Geographical Place and Period Time. This is subtle in its fracturing of the belief in this live performance, but it is apparent as the length of this work – two and three quarter hours – unwinds to reveal the consequent theatrical fracking, that may have been done, I suppose, for cultural relevance, for the Belvoir audience.

Are they so dim?

Josh McConville, as Peter, too, is unusually bewildered by his character, and lacks his usual perceptive lucidity of the psychology of his responsibility, observable not only in his tentative verbal ownership but, oddly, in his physical adjustments, which are most often supremely clear and clued for his audience – is it, I wondered, that he is being ‘foxed’ by the cigar, or, the palpable age difference between himself and his love object, Helen?( Not owning, believing the attraction?) There was no such problem with his successful last assignment for Belvoir in THE SUGAR HOUSE, with his violent working class hero, Ollie Macreadie.

Tom Anson Mesker, as Geoffrey, the homosexual art student, is the most awkward in his offers, vocally underpowered, sometimes inaudible and, most often, delivering an uncomfortable and unconvincing  physicality – it is obvious in his clumsy choreographic offers, lacking stylistic confidence and hence, finesse.

Thuso Lekwape, as sailor, Jimmie, somehow supersedes the Directorial obstacles and creates a viscerally winning character and is aided and abetted by Taylor Ferguson, as daughter, Jo, his exclusive acting companion, who once again, rides above the obstacles of the production to give a wholly complex and empathetic young woman of ‘difference’, almost suffocated by the given circumstances of her class and education. The ‘in the moment’ improvisations between Mr Lekwape and Ms Ferguson are exhilarating. Ms Ferguson’s energy, focus of effort, belief, and alert attention to the offers of all her stage partners are the sources for Ms Ferguson’s creation – she allows the others to help tell her story and has, in reserve, imaginative and emotional resources to propel the dilemmas of her Jo, centre stage.

Despite the awkwardness of the aspiration of Mr Flack, Ms Delaney’s play survives in its concerns – but they are concerns of another time, the concerns of 1958. 60 tears later, there is no longer any shock in what we see on the stage at Belvoir. It is, relatively, ho-hum in its ability to confront us and stretch us to cultural disquisition. It feels as if we are in a History of Theatre presentation – the experience one can often have at a local Amateur theatre – The Genesians, in Kent St, for instance. (Will we see one of Agatha Christie’s plays on the Belvoir stage, soon. For, reading The London Theatre Record, Agatha is having a vogue resurgence in London with some very positive reviews!)

The production forces one to ask, to help justify the spending of the resources of Belvoir on A TASTE OF HONEY: Why are we watching this play on one of the few Professional stages of the Sydney theatre scene? Why? Does Australianising of this provincial English play of 1958, tell us anything that supports the need for its revelation on the Belvoir stage in 2018? I don’t think so. The only vaguely thrilling contemporary frisson in this production are the dance and musical interludes between, Jo and Jimmie, from Ms Champion and Mr Gregory, and really, they are just decorative, distractions, titivations around a fairly dated night in the theatre, despite the quality of the acting.

Mr Flack in his Program Notes suggests that one of the possible cogitations, for us, of the events and characters of A TASTE OF HONEY, is, that like Jo:

“You can stake a claim to your originality. Being a bit wrong, a bit daft, is a precarious position to be in, but if you play it right you can turn wrong into something new. … You might be able to break in a new form, and make some history. Littlewood did it. Delaney did it with this play. … ”

Has Flack done it with this production of Shelagh Delaney’s A TASTE OF HONEY, in Sydney, in 2018? Make this play NEW? Make a New Form? Create History? I don’t think so. No, Mr Flack hasn’t been able to play it right, the choice of this play is a precarious idea, and maybe just wrong and daft. It is 60 years old and nothing on the Belvoir stage makes it feel new, new form or historical (except for the wrong reasons.)

The authentic Australian working class play experience may be coming with the Sydney Theatre Company’s THE HARP IN THE SOUTH. A TASTE OF HONEY is definitely not it.

Should we send Mr Falck a list of plays to consider to produce for his 2019 season, or, is it too late?

P.S. Read my blog on THE ROLLING STONE***.