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.