Review - A Taste of Honey at Trafalgar Studios
While previous National Theatre hits like An Inspector Calls, One Man Two Guvnors, War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time have had repeated returns to the West End and other stages around the country, director Bijan Sheibani has accomplished something different and even more striking in revisiting his 2014 production five years on for a UK tour and now a deserved West End transfer. He has not only completely re-cast it, but also newly underpins it with a live onstage jazz band accompanying the performance of some jazz standards.
In my otherwise embracing original 2014 review for LondonTheatre.co.uk, I complained aloud, "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"; but now it feels entirely organic and appropriate. It is quietly wonderful to see a production move from what seemed like a gimmick to fully integrating its method into the storytelling fabric of the play.
In other words, he's completely reappraised and recalibrated it. That's partly been facilitated by the re-casting, with Jodie Prenger now totally inhabiting the role of the mother Helen. Winner of the TV contest I'd Do Anything that won her the lead role of Nancy in the Drury Lane revival of Oliver! in 2009, she can obviously sing; but she's also since proved her acting credentials in tours of Abigail's Party and Shirley Valentine, as well as the West End transfer of One Man, Two Guvnors.
She's a volcanic force of nature that reveals a striking lack of nurture of her adult daughter Josephine. As we meet them in their dingy bedsit in a Salford boarding house in the late 1950s, with dust-encrusted windows overlooking a slaughterhouse, a painful portrait of mutual antagonism and co-dependence emerges in which they wrestle to free themselves of each other. Mother finds the companionship of a one-eyed man called Peter; Josephine falls for a black sailor, who returns to the sea after she falls pregnant, and she in turn finds a different sort of companionship with a young gay man, Peter.
There's not a lot of plot, but plenty of feeling underpinning the drama, and Sheibani's production fully maps how high the stakes are for all of them. Prenger is matched by a wonderfully truthful, deeply felt performance from Gemma Dobson as her daughter, with fine support from Tom Varley as Peter, Durone Stokes as Josephine's suitor Jimmie and Stuart Thompson as her gay friend Geoffrey.
As I wrote in 2014, Shelagh Delaney's debut play provides "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's a pleasure to have this historic drama back in the West End.
A Taste of Honey tickets are available now.