Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey is perhaps best known from its 1961 film adaptation starring Dora Bryan and Rita Tushingham. Sweeping the acting gongs at Cannes, it is set in Salford, and relates the story of a dysfunctional relationship between a mother and her daughter. This powerful family drama, from a local playwright, makes a fitting choice for the opening production of Northenden Players‘ new season, which is the first in their new theatre.
Sexually promiscuous mother, Helen, has always put herself before the needs of her daughter, Jo. Openly declaring that “Bearing a child doesn’t place one under an obligation to it“, she sees children as an inconvenience to her lifestyle. Conceived after an afternoon fling, her teenage daughter, Jo, has a flair for art but is tragically set to follow in her mother’s footsteps when she falls pregnant. When Helen moves in with her new lover and remarries, Jo must learn to fend for herself.
A Taste of Honey is underpinned by two excellent performances from its lead actors. Zoe Hulme impresses as Helen. Sassy and flirtatious, she captures her character’s flippant, promiscuous nature. This is most evident in Helen’s playful asides, which often break the fourth wall. She also displays a nonchalant attitude towards Jo, coldly applying make-up rather than comforting her daughter, giving Helen an egocentric, self-indulgent quality. Hulme credibly renders both sides of her character’s nature, likeable enough, but also morally questionable and unsympathetic.
Alice Machin brilliantly portrays the innocence and naivety of teenage youth, being engulfed in a whirlwind romance with a boy in the Navy, played by Rico Marshall. Jo’s joy is so infectious in these scenes, that you genuinely hope she finds happiness, that she can break free from her abusive mother. She shares great chemistry with James Robinson’s Geoffrey, who seems to genuinely care for her. The couple bounce off each other, creating a charming friendship in a bleak world. Machin also excels in the emotionally charged altercations with Hulme, making Jo a tragic victim of her mother’s precarious lifestyle. Together, they brilliantly render a dysfunctional relationship and highlight its cyclical nature.
This destructive relationship is reflected in Nigel Machin‘s production design. Although initially appearing slightly peculiar, it is evident that the set design forms a striking metaphor. Some of the walls are covered in a shiny metallic material, which creates distorted reflections of the play’s characters. Visually resembling a cracked mirror, it brilliantly represents the dysfunctional relationship that is central to the play. Perhaps there is a deeper symbolism here too, that Jo’s bright, optimistic future is broken, leaving a reality that is bleak and fragmented.
The set design generates a sharp contrast between this polished material and the dilapidated lodgings that Jo has to live in. With careful attention to detail, the flat is made to look neglected, as wallpaper is peeling from the wall and scorch marks and dirt festers on all surfaces, including the bedding. A slope is built across the stage, effectively separating the bedroom from the living area. It also provides different levels for the actors to stand, making great use of the space.
In this play of contrasts, the costume design, by Mary Dillon and Phil Moulson, also brilliantly reflects the opposing natures of the mother and daughter. Whilst Helen wears lavish, extravagant, designer clothing, Jo is left in her school uniform, with one sock longer than the other, aptly contrasting opulence with the ordinary everyday.
A Taste of Honey is a play centred around a mother and daughter so dysfunctional, they would end up on Jeremy Kyle, if it hadn’t been axed. Excellent performances from Zoe Hulme and Alice Machin highlight the tragic consequences of such a toxic relationship, and the contrasting natures of these two characters is creatively mirrored through the production design.
Running until the 7th September, you can find further information on Northenden Players’ website.