Theatre review: A Taste of Honey at the National Theatre

Like many classic comedies, Shelagh Delaney’s 1950s slice of northern realism ‘A Taste of Honey’ was intent upon breaching social boundaries. But its dated themes were the only sticking point of this delectable revival.

Helen is a working-class, single mother and alcoholic from Salford who elopes with a toy boy car salesman, leaving her teenage daughter Jo struggling to take care of herself.

Played here with perfect torpor by Kate O’Flynn, the young girl falls in love with a black sailor and they consummate their relationship before he sails off, abandoning her as well as their unborn child.

Months later, Helen returns to find herself usurped by a surrogate parent, gay art student Geoffrey (Harry Hepple), whilst further surprises await her in an explosive and provocative finale.

Six decades on, however, the most intriguing tale is that of the playwright – considered the first working-class woman to write in the once cloistered theatre world – whose script ripples with candour and authenticity.

Delaney, just 19 when she wrote the play, creates the kind of sullen mood one might expect from a teenager.

The lively Lesley Sharp does great justice to Helen and standout male performances included Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jo’s estranged fiancé and Dean Lennox Kelly as her stepfather.

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Yet this piece is all about strong-spirited women.

Bijan Sheibani’s direction tries to examine how far chaster 1958 attitudes permeate modern mind-sets, but is unable to recover the play’s timeworn capacity to shock.

Though the National’s trademark revolving stage played host to some superb period jazz sequences, these were not enough to evoke the harshness of post-war era northern working class life.

This comes despite thought-provoking and saccharine central performances.