Shelagh Delaney and A Taste of Honey – National Theatre

The Easter vacation found me returning to the career of playwright Shelagh Delaney in order to compile an entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. When Delaney died in 2011, obituaries predominantly focused on A Taste of Honey (1958) as though her professional life as a writer began and ended with this play. In point of fact, her career evinced a life-long commitment to writing, mainly for the big and small screens and, in her later, final years, to the medium of radio.

It is a long time since I have written a dictionary-styled entry; I’d forgotten just how really hard it is to combine a biographical time-line of dates with fragments of story-telling around key events into a condensed, few paragraphs. But while I muttered to myself about the serious amount of time it takes to manage this task (utterly disproportionate to the 1500 word count) and cursed the internet for the multiple inconsistencies of what happened when or what was performed or filmed in which year, I also relished the opportunity this occasioned for delving back into Delaney’s career, and not least as a study in the sexism that surrounds the reception of a woman playwright, an issue that even in these supposedly ‘post-feminist’ times has not been resolved. (For instance, in earlier writing on A Taste of Honey I have suggested that a comparison between Sarah Kane’s debut and Delaney’s makes for an illuminating study – how each was received and evaluated in accordance with their youth and gender; both widely dismissed as inexperienced writers unable to handle dramatic form. I raised this as a point of discussion in the fiftieth anniversary edition of A Taste of Honey, 2008.)

For a quick ‘taste’ of that sexism have a listen to this ITN interview that Delaney gave in 1959 – to the patronising, condensing tones of the interviewer and his attention to the ‘sordid’ theme of A Taste of Honey, and note Delaney’s incredulity and struggle to keep a straight face!

Along with having her personal life scrutinised by the presenter, as a writer ‘native’ to Lancashire she is also cast in the gaze of the news-reporting nation as some kind of alien, northern species. On home ground Delaney also found herself regularly subjected to vociferous criticism – a social outcast admonished by the ‘worthy’ dignitaries on Salford’s City Council who equally viewed her portrayal of northern life as ‘sordid’. Yet despite this antipathy and the way in which her burgeoning stage and film career saw her gravitate to London, it was Delaney’s roots, her closely observed and lived experience of working-class northern life, which sustained her writing and caused her to remain connected to the North. In contrast and as an antidote to the ITN interview, this fifteen-minute film by Ken Russell ‘Shelagh Delaney’s Salford’ offers an excellent portrait of the writer in her home city and its ‘restless’ character that she sought to capture:

The ‘restlessness’ of northern, working-class characters dealing with the social realities of their hard-pressed lives was ably captured in the revival of A Taste of Honey that has just finished its run at the National Theatre. The play has been endlessly staged over the years, but during her lifetime Delaney never gave permission for the play to be done at the National. Her daughter, Charlotte, explains: ‘One of the main reasons she never allowed a big production of Honey to be done in London in her lifetime was because she couldn’t bear the thought of those relentless and predictable questions – and those relentless quotes from people who had been there but who had little to say about her in the here and now’.

Mercifully in my view, there was no attempt in the National’s production to give the play a contemporary make-over or for its director, Bijan Sheibani, to opt for a conceptual reading. There was though a nod to Joan Littlewood’s original Workshop Theatre production: the performers segued between scenes to a musical, jazz accompaniment and occasional lines were directly addressed to the audience, most notably by Lesley Sharp in the role of the play’s mother, Helen. Sharp gave a mesmerising performance (I could have watched her for hours) that put me in mind of Coronation Street’s Elsie Tanner (Pat Phoenix) – the gutsy, working-class, female northerner; the sexy, spirited and outspoken survivor of numerous, disastrous relationships with men. It’s arguably a difficult role to play if there’s to be some kind of empathetic response to Helen’s selfish, man-related survivor instincts, given that these are at the expense of her pregnant, unmarried, daughter, Jo’s (Kate O’Flynn) well-being. In the final moments, there was a palpable intake of breath among the audience at Helen’s racist response on hearing that the heavily pregnant Jo whom she has deserted for several months is about to give birth to a baby who ‘may be black’. She is lost for words as she tries to imagine herself ‘wheeling a pram with a …’, but goes on to defiantly and directly address the audience, challenging their critical gaze with the question ‘what would you do?’

It is hard not to come away from the play wishing that Jo had sent her mother packing and chosen to remain with her gay friend, Geof (Harry Hepple), who has been her companion throughout the pregnancy, but back in 1958 Delaney eschewed what in other ways would be an ‘out-of-character’, or unrealistic closure. Moreover, hearing that ‘what would you do’ question posed in 2014 pricks at today’s seemingly liberal social conscience, a reminder that we are far from a racist- or homophobic-free world. Equally, the resilient mother and daughter duo ultimately give us a women-centred staging that is still all too rare in British theatre – one that, I might add, serves as an absolute riposte to Simon Stephen’s Birdland, a play that would have us believe that a disastrous romantic liaison ends in the woman throwing herself off a hotel rooftop!

Given that the National has revived A Taste of Honey, now might be the moment for a London theatre to consider staging Delaney’s second play The Lion in Love that had little if any success to speak of at the time of its original production in 1960; a play that prompted critics to write of how she needed ‘to go away and learn how to construct a play’. I have a hunch that in the wake of our nineties-and-beyond wave of heightened naturalism in British Theatre, in the right production hands this additional slice of Salford life would be a drama well worth revisiting.

Elaine

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8 thoughts on “Shelagh Delaney and A Taste of Honey – National Theatre

  1. I haven’t seen this production, but I heard a review programme on Radio 4 (probably ‘front row’?) in which, if I remember rightly, the consensus was that the play didn’t deal with anything important enough – just mother-daughter relationships.

  2. You might want to take a peek at the thread Kim Solga and I have just got going under the other post on Birdland – links to the dismissive view of mother-daughter relations that you highlight here, Cathy. best Elaine

  3. if you are writing a piece on delaney for a review then read my book: sweetly sings delaney, published by greenwich exchange (2013)…John Harding

    • Dear John Harding, yes I read your book – very interesting and helpful to contextualise Delaney’s work in the sixties. Oxford ask for a list of
      sources to accompany an entry, so I have listed your study. Next academic year, for the first time in years, I have an opportunity to teach A Taste of Honey. So students will also be referred to your book for information about the playwright – copy already ordered for our library in readiness,
      Best wishes, Elaine

      • dear elaine,
        thankyou for the reply. apologies for the curt suggestion, but getting the book reviewed anywhere or into shops has been very difficult!
        good luck with the course,
        best wishes,
        john

      • did the press try to get the study reviewed in UK theatre journals such as New Theatre Quarterly or Contemporary Theatre Review – might be possibilities to suggest to them if not, best Elaine

  4. Good Morning,

    I came across your details when researching the late playwright Shelagh Delaney. I am the founder and organiser of the newly introduced annual Shelagh Delaney Day. This day will be celebrated across the City of Salford in recognition of our critically acclaimed daughter. The official day will be held on the 25th November 2014 and every year thereafter.
    Shelagh Delaney Day announced

    Salford is to make 25 November the city’s official annual Shelagh Delaney Day in tribute to one of its most famous writers.

    City Mayor Ian Stewart has given his official support to the campaign by local resident Louise Woodward-Styles after she suggested the idea as part of the Spirit of Salford campaign.

    The day will be marked with a host of performances, exhibitions and public talks from leading experts with events and competitions held to promote young talent in the city.

    Mr Stewart said: “Shelagh’s pioneering work A Taste of Honey has become one of the classic plays of 20th century drama. It’s only right that her home city should officially celebrate and recognise Shelagh’s work in this way – she is one of Salford’s most famous daughters.

    “Shelagh once said of her home city: ‘for a writer, a place like Salford is worth its weight in gold. I think it’s a fabulous place, and the language is alive. It’s virile. It lives and it breathes and you know exactly where it’s coming from, right out of the earth.'”

    Myself, Salix Homes and Salford City Council have been working together to deliver a calendar of events celebrating Shelagh’s work and life. This september we will be unveiling a plaque outside of her former childhood home in the Duchy Road area of the city. We will also be rolling out a creative writing curriculum throughout the school’s and colleges in the city. The official host venue will be the Salford Arts Theatre where we will be screening Shelagh’s feature films plus special guest Charlotte Delaney will be in attendance to discuss her mothers legacy and life.

    I was wondering if you would like to attend our official celebration on the 25th November or would like to be updated with our calendar and press releases?

    Kind Regards,
    Louise Woodward-Styles
    Shelagh Delaney Day Founder

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