Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir
July 25, 2018

Fractious and fraught are just two words that spring to mind when spending the evening with the mother-daughter duo of Shelagh Delaney’s raucous work A Taste of Honey. The no doubt apocryphal tale goes that an 18-year-old Delaney was inspired to pen this, her debut play, after seeing Terrence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme. She wasn’t much impressed and set out to do better, creating a piece of theatre that took in working class women, interracial relations, and homosexuality, all written in just over a fortnight.

A Taste of Honey, BelvoirGenevieve Lemon and Taylor Ferguson in Belvoir St Theatre’s A Taste of Honey. All photos by Brett Boardman

Whether she bested Rattigan or not is a discussion for another day. What we have here is a vivid, perceptive work that’s a real feast for a cast who can sink their teeth into Delaney’s salty dialogue. In Eamon Flack’s tightly directed, mostly naturalistic production, there are memorable performances across the board, spearheaded by Genevieve Lemon as Helen, played to the manner born, and Taylor Ferguson’s affecting Jo. The play pivots on the relationship between the two, exploring the fallout when teenager Jo, abandoned by Helen for a younger husband, becomes pregnant by a Nigerian sailor and shacks up with a gay male art student.

In this production, Delaney’s Salford is dispensed with and accents remain Australian, a transplant that’s surprisingly successful considering the fundamentally northern idiom of her dialogue. Still, there is an essential Englishness about the play that peeps through now and again, but this doesn’t jar as much as it could given the post-war timeframe. The dance interludes of Delaney’s script are retained however, the latter exuberantly performed by the cast to composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory’s energetic score. Kate Champion’s choreography for Jo and her sailor Jimmie after their night together is particularly beautiful, a moment of grace that’s alien to the dilapidation of Jo’s flat, cleverly designed by Mel Page.

A Taste of Honey, BelvoirTom Anson Mesker and Taylor Ferguson in Belvoir St Theatre’s A Taste of Honey

Although a few pacing issues kept the first half from firing on all cylinders on opening, tight ensemble work more than made up for any longueurs, with Lemon and Ferguson entirely convincing as mother and daughter. Their frequent squabbling can’t be called affectionate, though there’s something there deep down. Rather, it’s used to keep each other at arm’s length, an easy outlet for Helen’s disinterest in her daughter and Jo’s resultant sense of neglect and hurt.

Both actors find appropriate moments of light and shade, with Lemon’s ability to strike a balance between Helen’s coarseness and obvious intelligence especially impressive. Ferguson was less emotionally varied in this first half – her intensity didn’t allow the audience to fully access her feelings of abandonment – but rallied for a strong second half, showing us a weary young woman who can’t quite escape reality anymore. Admirably, she doesn’t sentimentalise Jo, daring to make her both whingey and blithely cruel.

A Taste of Honey, BelvoirThuso Lekwape and Taylor Ferguson in Belvoir St Theatre’s A Taste of Honey

Rounding out the cast, Thuso Lekwape’s Jimmie makes a favourable impression in the brief stage time he’s allotted, while Josh McConville’s Peter is suitably repulsive, provoking titters of audience disapproval in his sexually fraught interactions with Jo. Tom Anson Mesker meanwhile makes for a tender, discerning Geoffrey. Just like Helen and Jo, his homosexuality sees him fall outside of the traditionally conceived nuclear family. It is therefore particularly painful when Helen blows into Jo and Geoffrey’s flat like a gale near the play’s end, dismantling the home they’ve managed to build by criticising and throwing out the comforts they’ve scrimped and scrabbled to obtain. Her husband has thrown her out and she’s ready to move in and care for the baby, she claims.

But this veneer of maternal duty soon falls away when Jo tells her the baby will be black. Hurrying out of the apartment, Helen promises she’ll return. But when the door slams, both the audience and Jo know it’s over, with the promise of long sought-for affection gone. All alone, Jo sits in the gloom, reciting a child’s nursery rhyme. She doesn’t ask for your pity, but she breaks your heart all the same.

Belvoir’s A Taste of Honey plays the Upstairs Theatre until August 19


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