What you must do when you see A TASTE OF HONEY is remember that it came from the mind of an 18-year-old woman who’d never before written a play.
Then you must imagine yourself back in 1958, when Shelagh Delaney’s comedy-drama hit the London stage. You’re sitting in the stiff-upper-lipped audience that was confronted with out-and-out miscegenation, more than a hint of homosexuality and a mention of abortion. Think of how many scandalized gasps and moans you would have heard around you. Perhaps you would have even contributed to a few of them.
Keep in mind, too, that two years later when the play opened on Broadway, almost 50% of the states were still banning marriages between blacks and whites. So even a kiss between a young black man and a young white woman would have still sent shocks or, sad to say, shudders through many audience members. They wouldn’t have been too hospitable to homosexuality and abortion, either. (The top-rated sitcom that year was THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, and nothing like this ever happened in Mayberry, R.F.D.)
And what about when 17-year-old Jo criticized the nose on one of her mother’s former lovers, only to have Helen flatly say to her underage daughter “It wasn’t his nose I was interested in.” That must have received a startled “Oooooh!” too.
Now, in the estimable production of A TASTE OF HONEY at the Pearl Theatre, the audience, which tends to be on the elderly side, exhibits no shock whatsoever. Because of authors such as Delaney, even advanced senior citizens have since heard it all.
So is the play “dated?” You can look at it that way, of course, but you’re better advised to concentrate on what a natural writer Delaney was at an age where her contemporaries were into screaming for Tommy Steele or Elvis Presley. The play may indeed make you gasp not from shock, but because of Delaney’s astonishing ability to be smart, fair-minded and even prescient.
True, one tenet of playwriting is that you have to know the rules before you can break the rules and Delaney apparently didn’t. For the first ten minutes or so, she has Helen, the fortyish mother she frankly describes as “a semi-whore,” and Jo break the fourth wall to toss off asides straight to the audience. All right – but then Delaney abandons the device for a couple of hours and comes back to it only at play’s end. At times such as these, we’re reminded that we’re in the company of a kid playwright.
You’d expect that Delaney would have related more to the character who’s her age. And yet in this opening scene she seems to have sided with Helen. When the two enter their new apartment in Salford, a not-so-desirable part of Manchester, England (from where Delaney not-so-incidentally hailed), Jo makes no secret that she hates her new surroundings while Helen prefers to make the best of a bad situation. Thus, Mother comes across as far nicer than her constantly complaining daughter. Note, too, that Helen gives Jo great and genuine encouragement when she sees the lass’s drawings.
That brings up one of the wonders of A TASTE OF HONEY: as soon as you make up your mind that you like or dislike a character, he or she will do something to change your mind. How’s that for round characterization?
Helen still lusts for men, and costume designer Barbara A. Bell makes Rachel Botchan’s every dress sport a plunging neckline so she can give a preview of two of her best assets. It works, for Peter (Bradford Cover), a middle-aged man who wears an eyepatch, is soon on the premises and showing an intense interest in her. “You can’t afford to lose a guy like me,” Cover says with great braggadocio, suggesting that the man shortage we’ve heard about in America for the last half-century was already happening in ‘50s London.
One of Austin Pendleton’s nice directorial touches has Peter actually propose marriage after Helen has sauntered into the kitchen. As soon as Peter pops the question a second time, we see the light suspended above the kitchen suddenly light up — as if Helen suddenly had the idea that marrying Peter would be in her best interests.
Perhaps if Helen hadn’t married and left Jo alone in the apartment, the girl wouldn’t have hooked up with Jimmy, a young black sailor who may or may not be simply on the make. Pendleton has done an excellent job in guiding Ade Otukoya and his endearing smile to convince us that he’s sincere in his affections toward Jo. Time, of course, will tell.
Along the way, Jo becomes friends with Geoffrey. She suspects he’s gay, and, oh, is he reluctant to admit it in an era and a country where being out meant being in prison. The way that Jo matter-of-factly says that Geoffrey’s sexual preferences don’t matter to her at all may have made her the first character in the history of drama to feel that way. What’s more, had there ever before been a play in which a gay man wants to be a father?
Would that everyone in 1958 could have been as gay-friendly as Jo. Oh, she and Geoff do do battle, undoubtedly at the same intensity and frequency of their married friends. But especially in the tenderness shown between Brockman and John Evans Reese, there’s clearly love of a kind here.
Reese and Pendleton do a fine job in making Geoffrey a stand-up guy without a stereotype in sight. By meeting Jo, he believes he’s found his purpose in life, and he’s fully ready to embrace it.
Pendleton, in fact, steers his five performers into displaying the best kind of acting – which seems like no acting at all. As Jo, Rebekah Brockman displays the confidence of youth with a head-swaggering “I’m not just talented. I’m a genius.” There’s the rebellion of youth, too, when she semi-disgustedly admits that “I used to smoke just to annoy my mother.”
Rachel Botchan has the right toss-off delivery with such time-honored mothers’ complaints as “It’s your life. Ruin it your own way” and, of course, “I would have never dared to speak to my mother like that.” But the two come together quite nicely in a lovely scene spurred by Jo’s asking “What was my father like?”
There is one oddity, which was the brainchild of original director (and famed experimentalist) Joan Littlewood. She thought that having some music would help the play, and hired a guitarist, bassist and cornet man to play incidental music as well as accompaniment when one of the characters burst into a snatch of song to make a point.
Pendelton has done Littlewood one – shall we say better? No: worse. He actually brings the musicians into the apartment and has two of them sit on the couch. (The poor bassist must stand with his instrument.) They watch the action between their infrequent forays into song, and occasionally the characters actually acknowledge them. It’s distracting — and the musicians look none too pleased to be there.
On the other hand, we should be grateful that Littlewood’s idea gave Bobby Scott the chance to write what became a jazz standard. “A Taste of Honey” eventually was embellished by Ric Marlow’s lyrics and was later recorded by artists as diverse as Herb Alpert, Barbra Streisand and The Beatles. Would Shelagh Delaney had ever expected that when she sat down and wrote “Act One, Scene One” on her pad of paper?