Salford was one of the locations listed in the JAMs's 1991 hit 'It's grim up north'. But Shelagh Delaney got there first, though with an altogether more sympathetic, nuanced portrait of working class life in Salford than that bald recitation of place names offered.
Her play A Taste of Honey was originally premiered in 1958 at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East (before transferring to the West End the following year), when she was just 19 years old. The daughter of a bus inspector, she had left school four years earlier, but had according to a programme note by Jeanette Winterson "spent her wages on books and theatre tickets."
One of the plays she saw was Terence Rattigan's Variations on a Theme and she thought she could do better. That play is itself coincidentally about to be revived at London's Finborough Theatre in its first production in over 50 years, so we'll soon be the judge of that. But it is absolutely true that she would do it differently, being both a young woman and from a strikingly different background to the already renowned Rattigan.
Her play turned out to be a groundbreaker and a breath of fresh air in its portrait of real lives being lived and survived on society's rougher edges, by a writer that knew its true authentic voice. And as she pours her heart and a community's soul into her writing, she provides one of the most shattering and surprising plays about life's harsher realities in 50s' Britain that still feels achingly true and resonant today.
It made it onto the National's One Hundred Plays of the Century list that was produced to mark the millennium, but has rarely been revived in London (though there was a production in Sheffield in 2012); I've never seen it myself, and so was happy to seize the chance to do so now.
And though the high, wide spaces of the National's Lyttelton aren't exactly conducive to expressions of intimate emotion, Bijan Sheibani's production is so beautifully cast that it throbs with feeling. As the warring, neglectful relationship of a single mother and her teenage daughter is laid bare, a story of abandonment and survival is laid bare. Jo finds herself left to fend for herself after her mother Helen leaves her for a much younger lover, and Jo in turn has a short-lived fling with a black sailor that leaves her pregnant. She finds kindness and support from a gay art student Geoffrey who comes to live with her.
The wondrous Kate O'Flynn who won the Most Promising Newcomer Award at this year's Critics' Circle Theatre Awards for her performance last year in Simon Stephens' Port on the same Lyttelton stage is spellbinding as daughter Jo, bringing an aching poignancy to the stage that is also tough in her resilience. She is stunningly matched by Lesley Sharp's explosively abrasive performance as her mother, while there is also terrific support from Dean Lennox Kelly, Eric Kofi Abrefa and Harry Hepple as the various men in their lives.
Though there are some troubling directorial interventions in Sheibani's production, including the setting of Aline David's atmospheric but intrusive dances into breaks between scenes, the play speaks for itself with a gritty, gruelling intensity.
"I am glad to have seen this stage version [but] I much preferred the vitality of the film to this somewhat leaden, it’s-grim-up-North production.."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"it is a tough, tenacious play with an emotional bite that proves it is more than raucous comedy."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"For all the lumps and bumps in the play, it still emerges as fresh and startlingly observant."
Sarah Hemming for The Financial Times