Theatre – A Taste of Honey

Venue: Upper Theatre, Belvoir
Written By: Shelagh Delaney
Directed By: Eamon Flack

Written by a 19 year-old Shelagh Delaney, set in working class Britain and first produced in 1958, how relevant is A Taste of Honey to a Sydney audience in 2018?

Its central interests – single motherhood, mother-daughter relationships, pregnancy in teenagers, black men, gay men, sexual choices – were challenging in its time, and while earning Delaney disapproval from traditionalists won the resounding appreciation of a new generation of theatre-goers.

While we like to think of ourselves as a more tolerant and progressive society than the insular and op-pressive world of Australia in the 1950s, have we created a better world for the economically disad-vantaged woman? If you respond with a “yes” to this proposition, then perhaps you inhabit a safe, middle-class environment, and daily congratulate yourself on saving penguins and refugees. But for many the struggle to find their place in life and establish an identity as “a someone” is heartbreakingly difficult.

The central character, Jo (a very convincing Taylor Ferguson), daughter of single mother, Helen (a frighteningly narcissistic Genevieve Lemon), has been to 13 schools, “dragged” from one place to another by a mother who is looking for new pastures or escaping old disappointments. Helen original-ly left her husband owing to his sexual reticence and conceived Jo in a moment of weakness with a nice but “daft” man. From then on she fended for herself, working in bars and linking up with various men. We meet the mother and daughter as they arrive in a dank, heatless, grubby flat with one bed and the use of a communal bathroom. Helen is soon to abandon Jo and marry a younger man, Peter (a very unlikable Josh McConville), who is not beyond assessing the sexual appeal of her daughter.

Left alone, and looking for love, Jo falls for a lively and faithless black sailor, Jimmie (a charming Thuso Lekwape), and becomes pregnant. Jo, now sole occupier of the flat, a place she makes home, pays for it for by working in a shoe shop by day and bar by night. (How, by the way, has this changed, given the new regime of casual employment?) Realising she has to find a new strategy for survival, Jo targets Geoffrey (an appealing Tom Anson Mesker), a gay man, whom she divines has a problem in finding accommodation. After an initial change of insults, they develop an uneasy relation-ship that allows Geoffrey to show his nurturing instincts but makes Jo feel smothered.

From the outset we can see that Jo has a desire to be “someone”. This she maintains despite her moth-er’s cruel dismissal of her claims to uniqueness. For a few moments she lives in the romantic illusion that she and Jimmie will be a couple, however, she seems to know that she will not find her destiny in matrimony. When eventually Geoffrey moves out, or rather is pushed out by the return of homopho-bic Helen, he has given Jo confidence in her selfhood. It is apparent that his own difference or “daft-ness”, as Jo calls it, helps him understand and support her as her difference helps her understand Geoffrey. At the same time, Jo becomes aware that his brand of cosy domesticity is not for her.

After Helen departs upon discovering her grandson will be black, Jo is left alone. Centre stage sitting on a wooden chair that hardly contains her pregnant body, her legs projecting awkwardly from her homemade smock, she looks abandoned but also defiant. What will be the outcome for her now? Will she follow the pattern set for her by Helen? Will she consider trying to develop her artistic talent like Geoffrey? And what about the baby? Will she be able to manage with no prospect of a single mother’s pension. As a marginalised individual, her choices are limited but her most important choice is how she will respond to her situation. Uniquely, we hope.

Jo’s struggle to fulfill what she feels to be her unique potential is universally recognisable. It was so in the 1950s and it is so now as Sydney reconstructs its image to fit with the “global
city”, a concept which supports the growth of a large marginalised population for whom it is difficult to earn a living in a market place controlled by a wealthy elite. Belvoir’s production is very much in tune with the times.

Perhaps slightly too long, and perhaps the musical interludes dividing the action into episodes are slightly too loud, the production nevertheless is of a high standard. The cast was uniformly good, each character well thought through and consistent, and the production values supported the excellence of their performance. A special mention must go to the costuming (Mel Page) of Helen, whose ’50s out-fits were horribly appropriate to the time and the character.

July 25 – August 19, 2018.

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