This week marks 63 years since Salford-born writer Shelagh Delaney’s seminal kitchen-sink play, ‘A Taste of Honey’, was first performed at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, a small fringe theatre in London.
Written when she was just 19 years old, the story was originally intended to be a novel. However, the shift towards a stage production allowed Delaney’s gritty, unfiltered characters to come to life, as they wend their way through the play’s many trials and tribulations.
What is ‘A Taste of Honey’ about?
‘A Taste of Honey’ was penned at a time of great social upheaval, which is reflected in Delaney’s stark, at times very graphic depiction of working-class Salford.
The play follows the story of a young woman named Jo, and her brash, promiscuous mother, Helen. When Helen abandons her daughter when she is just seventeen to move in with her new young lover, Jo finds comfort in the arms of a dashing black sailor. However, when her new beau is recalled to duty, the young Jo is left pregnant and alone. Her only ally is her gay friend Geoffrey, who takes on the role of a surrogate father to Jo’s young child.
The play was noted as being visionary at the time of its initial performance, for it deals with themes of sexuality, class, gender, and race, set against a backdrop of a heavily deprived working-class Salford street.
Impact of ‘A Taste of Honey’:
At the time of its debut performance, the theatre movement of ‘kitchen sink’ realism plays was emerging rapidly. These plays usually focused on protagonists who could be grouped under the moniker of ‘angry young men’, who were disillusioned with society and with their roles within it. Such plays include the likes of ‘Look Back In Anger’ written by John Osbourne in 1956, and ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’, the first production of which was directed by the legendary Joan Littlewood in 1960.
However, ‘A Taste of Honey’ is unusual among these plays in that it focuses primarily on female lead characters. This has inspired many Northern artists to do the same, including Jeanette Winterson, author of ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’, the powerful story of a young lesbian coming to accept herself and her sexuality.
As well as Winterson, Delaney heavily inspired The Smiths’ infamous frontman, Morrissey. An image of Shelagh appears on the cover of their single ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’, and on the artwork for their album ‘Louder Than Bombs’. In addition, their song ‘This Night Has Opened My Eyes’ is heavily inspired by the play, and many of the lines spoken by the protagonist Jo can be found littered throughout The Smiths’ discography.
But ‘A Taste of Honey’ has not gathered the same metaphorical literary dust that many older plays seem to have done. On the contrary, the play was recently added back into the GCSE English Literature syllabus as an optional text for students to study, owing to its remarkable resonance, even in our modern society.
Shelagh herself is also now heralded as one of Salford’s most inspirational women, as she has paved the way for women – and in particular Northern women – to claim theatre and the arts as a place where their voices can also be heard.
You can order your own copy of ‘A Taste of Honey’ at many online retailers.