More than 60 years after the play’s premiere, and three years since he first directed it at the National Theatre, Bijan Sheibani’s new revival continues to show that Shelagh Delaney’s superb play is as fresh as you could wish.
Sheibani adds a sophisticated flourish to the production with an on-stage three-piece band and music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell. Popular songs provide introductions to characters and ease the play’s episodic structure. Although sometimes elegiac, the music adds an energy to the show that, despite my admiration for the text, is admittedly needed.
As well as putting some soul into Salford, Sheibani’s close knowledge of the piece has led to sharp performances that do justice to Delaney’s wonderful characters. Jodie Prenger is great as the wicked mother Helen: razer sharp and brutally honest, she’s funny and smart even if you wouldn’t want her as a family member. Gemma Dobson plays her daughter Jo with bold intelligence. Refusing to make the character too sympathetic, she’s a brittle teenager who is frequently unappealing. The bickering matches between the two women are a highlight but the humour is controlled; A Taste of Honey isn’t a comedy no matter how funny both women are. Moments of hope, fear and pain are all regularly glimpsed and then hidden with frightening speed.
Performances from the men in both women’s lives are just as good. Durone Stokes makes a dashing love interest for Jo, while Tom Varey plays Helen’s new husband just the right side of villain. Stuart Thompson may have the trickiest role as Geof – Delaney’s precocity gets the better of her characterisation here, it’s amazing to think she wrote the play at 19 – but his performance is still one to be proud of.
That the play is concerned with
Northern working-class lives still feels unusual. Treating its central female
characters as intelligent and complicated remains depressingly rare. While
rooted in its time and place, Sheibani’s production shows a play that’s still
for today; a piece he makes it easy to relate to, while never compromising on
Delaney’s distinctive voice.
Lurid, dense and poetic, Jean Genet’s play is revived with an expert translation by David Rudkin. We join three prisoners in a cell who say they will be “the slow death of each other”. The felons plot a murder, while creating a hierarchy of criminality that baffles as much as it intrigues. Genet said the play should unfold as in a dream and director Geraldine Alexander bears the dictate in mind, so this is a style that won’t appeal to all. Cryptic and cerebral, it’s an experience that’s dazzling, but might leave you dazed.
The cell is a cube reminiscent of cage fighting, placed in a circus ring with sawdust on the floor. The design from Lee Newby fits the play perfectly and The Print Room’s (newish) home at the Coronet only adds to the atmosphere. With an impressive lighting rig utilised by David Plater, the production values are top notch. As are the performances – there’s outstanding acting here. The murderer Green-Eyes, awaiting execution, has the most “clout” in the cell and the character’s animal magnetism and poetic fervour are convincingly portrayed by Tom Varey, showing the twisted depths of Genet’s writing. The cellmates share an obsession with Green-Eyes. Lefranc’s crimes may be “hot air” but he becomes a chilling figure through a balanced performance from Danny Lee Wynter. And Maurice is confrontationally played as a “screaming Queen” by Joseph Quinn, who gives a professional stage debut of great detail that bodes well for his future career.
All three roles are challenging. Unlike most (maybe all) crime fiction, Genet isn’t interested in the personal motivation behind crime. Backstories are suggested, but can they be trusted? Philosophy is explored as much as psychology. All this could ring alarm bells – or excite. Call me slow, I wanted more pauses – time for everything to stop and slow down – allowing an opportunity to drink in the language. Instead Alexander’s emphasis is on the tension, so fair enough. A more justifiable quibble is that even in this strong production the depth of Genet’s text isn’t plumbed, with the roles of brute force and mindless violence neglected. Nonetheless, an exceptional show.