Shelagh Delaney was only nineteen years old when her first play A Taste of Honey caused a sensation on the London stage in 1959, after which it moved to Broadway with Joan Plowright as the sensitive protagonist, Jo, and Angela Lansbury as her earthy mother, Helen. Delaney said that she wrote her play as a response to seeing Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme, which she felt was false to her own experience of life. With John Osborne and several other playwrights of that time, Delaney was a key figure in introducing kitchen sink realism to the British stage, and she smashed several taboos in A Taste of Honey by portraying an interracial relationship between Jo and a black sailor (played on Broadway by a young Billy Dee Williams) and including a homosexual male character named Geoffrey who is Jo’s best friend and protector.
Delaney never quite re-captured the success of her first effort, but she had made her impact. As a young actor, Austin Pendleton was enthralled by A Taste of Honey, and now he has directed a revival of the play for the Pearl Theatre Company—you can tell how much he loves this material from the vital, impassioned way he has staged it. This production has been perfectly cast, and Rebekah Brockman’s Jo in particular is a really lovely piece of work, especially where Pendleton has encouraged her to emphasize Jo’s intoxicated high spirits in contrast to the drab life she is living. As Jo’s mother Helen, a juicy and difficult part, Rachel Botchan is ideal: warm yet somehow distant, as lively as her daughter but without her daughter’s heart. The trick here is that we aren’t supposed to realize just how awful Helen is until fairly late in the play, and Botchan manages this quite well.
The vexed relationship between a sexy, careless mother and her punctilious, gamine daughter is kept in touching balance here, and Delaney’s play still works as a portrait of the damage that Helen does to Jo without ever really meaning to. A Taste of Honey only shows its age in the way it sees Geoffrey (John Evans Reese), who takes care of Jo after she gets pregnant. Helen keeps calling Geoffrey a “pansified freak” over and over again while we wait for Geoffrey to stand up for himself, but he never does because he is in no position to do so. It should be remembered that merely putting a gay character on stage in 1959 was a radical act, and so it feels like Delaney is constrained to characterize Geoffrey beyond his loyal but stymied relationship to Jo.
The sad thing here is that Geoffrey seems to have internalized what Helen and society think of him: that he is a diseased person. And so A Taste of Honey winds up being more depressing than it probably was when it was first done, because Geoffrey and Jo and Helen seem so truly trapped in their time and milieu. This play is an important part of theatre history, and you will not find a better production of it than this one by Pendleton for the Pearl.
Photos courtesy of Russ Rowland