Saturday, 21 September 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: A Taste Of Honey - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

'A Taste Of Honey' was one of the first plays I studied as a drama student and I hold dear to my heart. Although I had seen the 1961 film by director Tony Richardson and loved the dank, gritty Salford it portrayed, this was the first time I had seen it performed on stage professionally The production is everything you would expect from The National Theatre: big set, big stars, big aspirations and a great night of entertainment. . .I just didn’t feel it portrayed enough heart.

Playwright, Shelagh Delaney was a Salford lass herself when she wrote the play and everything about her writing has a real Northern charm about it. She was writing about her home and portraying the harsh realities of poverty stricken, post war Britain but she wasn’t writing with pessimism; this was kitchen sink drama at its finest and there was a really dark sense of humour about the characters and their relationships, at all times.

Protagonists of the story were mother and daughter, Helen (played by Jodie Prenger) and her daughter, Jo (Gemma Dobson) who are at a turning point in their relationship as Jo prepares to leave school and fly the nest. It is clear we need to feel the tension between them from the outset but the bickering of this mother/ daughter duo was so fast-paced in these opening scenes it felt rushed and somewhat empty. The vocal projection was fantastic as the company chose not to use microphones for the dialogue, despite being in the huge Lyric theatre, however it began to grate on me after a while that the same shouty delivery was going to continue for the full act. That said, these are two wonderfully talented actresses who were capable of demonstrating the brashness of their roles, perfectly. I just wished they would have slowed down to make me believe their words were real. I felt the dialogue had no thought process or nuance behind it, just angry shouting and I really felt they lacked any sense of complexity in the relationship between them.

The second act was better. The introduction of Jo’s friend Geoffrey (played by Stuart Thompson) added the warmth I was longing for. The pace of delivery slowed down, the mood completely changed and I really felt the whole play found a new rhythm. Characters began to feel like they had believable relationships and by the final scenes, there was even a glimmer of pathos between the mother and daughter.

Hildegard Bechtler’s design of this production recreated the grittiness of Salford extremely well, from the shabby interior of Jo and Helen’s home to the decline of young Jo in her costume design. This, for me, was the saving grace of the entire production. Paul Anderson’s lighting effectively portrayed the changing seasons and the sense of hope which existed outside the dank home.

Music played a pivotal role in this production with a live jazz band present on stage throughout. Although they were fantastic and there were moments when this was effective to highlight the emotion of a scene or for the lively transitions, I just didn’t understand why they were playing jazz. I felt that jazz had no place in the mood of this piece and it was a step too far from the gritty Salford you expected in this play. Perhaps it was to utilise the fabulous vocals of Jodie Prenger, which it clearly did at the opening and it lifted the mood in the second half with Geoffrey’s dynamic characterisation.

During the interval my companion expressed outrage at the production, citing the lack of grit, the poor portrayal of the mother/daughter relationship and I had felt her positively bristling with anger during the first half. I wondered if that was the case with other audience members so took it upon myself to ask around. The reactions were polar opposites of each other; some loved it and many hated it. This is a ‘marmite’ production, and I’m afraid that I can’t stand marmite. Overall the production is lacking focus, particularly in the characterisation and this is underpinned by music that feels contrapuntal to the setting and intended mood of the playwright. Whilst many elements of the production design work, they never quite portrayed the poverty and desperation which maps out the decisions and outcomes of the characters.

Reviewer - Johanna Hassouna-Smith
on - 20/9/19

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