Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

mother and daughter

Mother, at least by name, and daughter, Faye Hatch as Helen and Katie Johnson as Jo.

 Pictures: Mark Hinton 

A Taste of Honey

Sutton Arts Theatre


Shelagh Delaney was just 19 when she wrote A Taste of Honey, a play regarded as one of the pioneers of that very British contribution to theatre, the kitchen sink drama.

It is set among the lower end of the working classes in her native Salford, people living in dilapidated, rented, sub-standard accommodation with shared, often inadequate, facilities and shared despair.

Like other such plays of the late 50s and early 60s it uses the setting to highlight social issues, allowing writers to explore the likes of homelessness, poverty or, as here, housing, race and homosexuality, with a nod to abortion along the way.

It was panned by critics - except for influential Birmingham born critic Kenneth Tynan, who had been a near lone voice championing Look Back in Anger two years earlier, and who sang its praises loud and clear, applauding the fact Delaney had brought real people to the stage and given them life.

It was enough to make the world take notice. The issues have been aired many times since, but more than 60 years on this is still a gritty, powerful drama, and still has its echoes today, with a child dying in a mould infested flat and people unable to heat their homes and relying on food banks.

We open with Helen dragging her daughter Jo along to their latest lodgings, a one bedroom, dingy rented excuse with a view of the gas works and abattoir on the other side of the River Irwell, which in its polluted state in the 1950s was hardly Manchester’s answer to Venice.

Faye Hatch gives us a Helen that could be found in many a northern pub or club, booze and dim lighting being her friends. She might not have been on the game, but in football parlance, she was always ready for a kickabout.

Her Helen is blousy, selfish, thinks of herself first, second and third, sees her daughter as both a servant and a crutch, as well as someone to blame if things go wrong – and if things go right? Jo can fend for herself. Not so much tough love as, well, just tough.


Fags, booze, lippy and laughs, always up for a good time - that's Helen

She is a one-dimensional character, the one dimension being Helen. No subtlety, no complexity - she is a good time girl with a fair number of miles on the clock whose main appeal to the opposite sex is availability.

Jo is damaged goods. It’s a superb performance from Katie Johnson, who we last saw in another superb performance in A Walk in the Woods. Her Jo shows unbelievable strength merely to survive. It has made her independent, reliant on no one, love being a luxury she can neither afford nor give.

She is a talented artist, but her education is fractured from being regularly moved around Salford and Manchester from one dingy digs to another.

Come Christmas and Helen is off on another good time, with no doubt a horizontal view of the festive season, leaving Jo, who has just left school, to fend for herself. Lonely, lost Jo finds comfort in Jimmy, a sailor, played by Jerome Pinnock-Glasgow, who professes love and marriage, giving Jo a ring - and a baby - as he returns to the sea. It is the last time we will see Jimmy, but he has served his purpose. Did we mention, Jimmy happens to be black? Hardly causes a stir now, but this was the “No Irish, No Blacks” 1950s.

Helen’s new love is Peter, love doing a lot of heavy lifting here. He’s a rich, not overbright . . . we never do find out what nefarious enterprise he is involved in . . . played by Ollie Roberts.

Peter dresses like a two-bob spiv, has a penchant for drink and you suspect his relationship with Helen is for certainty and regularity rather than romance. He treats her with all the affection of a lecher but he has plenty of cash to spread around and a big house, which is romantic enough for Helen, so off she goes – Jo the last consideration as usual.

As she leaves though Helen find’s Jimmy’s ring and explodes at her daughter for wanting to marry so young and ruining her life as she had done. For just an instant she shows genuine concern, even a hint of affection for her daughter, as if there really is a mother hiding in there, but it quickly passes, and she can concentrate on Helen again.

desterted daughter

Born into a life short of hope and affection daughter Jo has to learn to survive

With Helen gone Jo, alone and pregnant, arrives home from a night at the fair with Geoff. Geoff, played by Freddie Ash, escorted her because the streets were dark, no agenda beyond that. You see Geoff is gay, probably the reason his landlady has thrown him out, so Jo lets him stay the night, and the next and the next.

He is an art student, and the pair have a growing, platonic friendship, affection even, with Geoff happy to be a father to a child that isn’t is, and Jo, well, not really wanting anything to do with it.

And that would be that, except with Peter and the good life now in the past, homeless Helen turns up on the doorstep.

The end is swift and brutal. Helen detests Geoff, the “pansified little freak”, so while Jo sleeps he is out on his ear. Jo is hers, and hers alone, that is until she discovers Jimmy was . . . which means her grandchild will be . . . which will bring shame on . . . Helen . . . it always comes down to Helen.

And that leaves Jo . . . well, Jo is all that is left. Honey never tasting so bitter.

It’s a play is set in a depressing landscape, yet there are laughs, Helen is a tragicomic character with her misplaced optimism and self-importance, her stupidity and asides bringing a smile. There is also sadness as we can see the bleak future awaiting her as age and time make even her availability unattractive.

Then there is Jo, showing the human spirit can rise above and even smile at almost anything, almost . . . we really feel for her.

And 60 years on there may be less racism but it is still there. Homophobia has followed much the same path, prejudice faded but not yet forgotten, and as for housing, and poverty. Improvements are hard to see. A Taste of Honey still has echoes today.

It opened in 1958, produced by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the famed Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Sutton Arts production, ably directed by Claire Armstrong-Mills hasn’t got the same shock value, times have changed after all, but it has the spirit of the original with fine acting, particularly from mother and daughter.

The pair bounced off each other and kept consistent and reet good accents fer’t Northern lasses, proper Lanky – and that from one born a bus ride or so from Salford.

Paul Wescott’s set design uses Sutton’s limited stage imaginatively while David Ashton’s lighting adds to the dingy atmosphere. Sound from Tim Mills programmed by Ashton again sets the era.

A mention too for Tina Townsend and Sue Atkins in the props department who come up with a more than usual number for the average play from dolls and stuffed toys to a wicker crib, bunches of flowers, boxes of chocolates, mismatched crockery and, let’s not forget, a ring.

It's a classic, landmark play in a classy production with the honey available for tasting to 25-03-23.

Roger Clarke


Sutton Arts Theatre

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