Review: A Taste of Honey at Derby Theatre

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Shelagh Delaney was famously inspired to write A Taste Of Honey by watching a Terence Rattigan play in 1958.

After thinking that she could write more realistic characters and situations, the 19-year-old set to work on her first play, a landmark offering that has proved highly influential.

The worry with a play that was so cutting edge when first seen is that time has moved on and it has lost its freshness, but, judging by Derby Theatre and Hull Truck Theatre’s co-production at Derby Theatre, A Taste Of Honey certainly isn’t showing its age (56 this year), while its themes - including race, sexuality and how to make your way in the world - contain a relevance and directness that rings true today.

Set in Salford in 1959, the play follows 17-year-old Jo, desperate to break free from her wayward mother, Helen.

Jo’s instinct for survival and pursuit of happiness leads her to fall in love with Jimmy, a sailor on shore leave.

Abandoned by her mother, Jo’s courage is tested yet again when Jimmy returns to sea, and she discovers she’s pregnant.

Defiant of convention, Jo moves in with her friend Geoffrey, a young art student, who assumes the role of surrogate father to her unborn child.

Heading a cast of five is Shameless star Rebecca Ryan as Jo.

Never off the stage throughout the play, her performance is a triumph, portraying the many sides of this complicated, spiky but ultimately sympathetic young woman.

Julie Riley is also very good as her mum Helen, a hard woman with virtually no maternal instinct, but who just about comes through for her daughter when needed.

There was also an entertaining turn from James Weaver as the eye-patch wearing, leering and later drunken Peter, and Christopher Hancock, in a fine performance as Geoff, who also proved himself no mean singer in the brief music interludes between scenes, performed by Hancock, Weaver and Lekan Lewal (Jimmy).

Directed with plenty of zip by Mark Babych, and featuring a coal and dirt-strewn set designed by Hayley Grindle, the production successfully makes you forget the almost indelible impressions made by Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan in the famous 1961 film, and offers a thought-provoking, affecting and sometimes funny night out at the theatre.

A Taste Of Honey can be seen at Derby Theatre until Saturday, May 10, and ticket details are available by calling the box office on 01332 593939.

STEVE EYLEY