Although it’s hailed as a landmark in gritty Northern kitchen sink drama, we’re claiming A Taste of Honey for London because 19-year-old Mancunian Shelagh Delaney chose to send her first ever script to the redoubtable Joan Littlewood at Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was Littlewood's visionary 1958 staging that ensured an immediate West End transfer, a Broadway run starring Poplar’s own Angela Lansbury, and the wonderful Tony Richardson film with its breathtaking debut for Rita Tushingham as Jo.
Delaney had no time for critics. In a still-available-on-YouTube documentary she told Ken Russell that she was much more interested in the reaction of East End dockers and cab drivers who flocked to Stratford to see characters they recognised on stage.
It’s such an important piece – presenting teenage pregnancy, mixed-race relationships, an unashamed gay character – and it’s rightly acclaimed as a pioneering feminist work because the two protagonists are both women, and all the secondary characters men. As the play which inspired the original producers of Coronation Street to believe TV could sustain a twice-weekly soap set only in one Manchester terrace, it fully deserves its revival at the National Theatre.
What is doesn’t deserve is being drowned in Bijan Sheibani’s pretentious direction and overwhelmed by an enormous and pointlessly revolving set when the entire piece is set in the same small room. Laden with musical and danced interludes, the warm human drama between a bickering mother and daughter who roundly criticise each other but are so palpably cut from the same cloth is mown down with theatrical effect it just doesn’t need. Similarly the usually wonderful, nuanced and clear-eyed Lesley Sharp is encouraged to overdress and overact in a mannered and physically quirky performance which serves neither the character as originally written, nor Dora Bryan’s warmer-hearted and a thousand times funnier on-screen Salford slattern.
Kate O’Flynn, fresh from an impressive performance as an equally bolshy teenager in Port, has more success with Jo, striking a blow for female self-determination in an era where it was barely recognised, but skirting the vulnerability which made Tushingham so endearing. At two and three-quarter hours, you may go back after the interval reflecting the movie would be over by now: the over-episodic structure where characters are introduced slowly and sequentially doesn’t suit modern audiences used to more immersive theatre experiences. Act 2 does feature the best thing in this play – Harry Hepple’s subtle, naturalistic and believable gay best friend Geoffrey, a performance which elevates the piece above a cartoon parody of the original, and it’s worth seeing for him alone.
Londonist saw A Taste of Honey on a press ticket provided by the National Theatre PR Team. A Taste of Honey continues at the Lyttleton until 11 May. Tickets £15-£50, available from the National Theatre website, or call the box office on 020 7452 3000.