A Taste
of Honey

By Shelagh Delaney
Director Eamon Flack

  • Venue Upstairs Theatre
  • Dates 21 July – 19 August 2018
  • Duration Approx. 2 hours & 35 mins inc. interval *

    Jo is in her teens, pregnant, and on her own since her African boyfriend went back to sea. But she’s always had to find her own way in her working-class neighbourhood: Dad never existed, and Mum – well, Mum has run away from home to shack up with a car salesman. Jo meets art student Geoff at a funfair; he’s got nowhere to go since his landlady threw him out for being gay. So they set up an unconventional family – until Jo’s Mum comes crashing back into their sweet little life.

    One of the great (and half-forgotten) plays of the 20th century. And a role for the superb Gen Lemon to go to town on…

    Supported by the Nelson Meers Foundation

    * This running time is an estimate only. Please check again closer to opening night for updates.


    By Shelagh Delaney
    Director Eamon Flack
    Set & Costume Designer Mel Page
    Lighting Designer Damien Cooper
    Composer & Sound Designer Stefan Gregory
    Movement Director Kate Champion
    Fight Coordinator Nigel Poulton
    Stage Manager Luke McGettigan
    Assistant Stage Manager Julia Orlando


    Taylor Ferguson
    Thuso Lekwape
    Genevieve Lemon
    Josh McConville
    Tom Anson Mesker


    Production images by Brett Boardman
    Rehearsal images by Brett Boardman
    • Director’s Note

      Shelagh Delaney, who grew up poor in the middle of England in the middle of the 20th century, wrote A Taste of Honey when she was 19. The way she tells it, a young man took her to a play at the Opera House in Manchester, “and I came away after the performance having suddenly realised that at last after nineteen years of life I had discovered something that meant more to me than myself.” She borrowed a typewriter and “set to and produced this little epic.” Then she sent it to the great Joan Littlewood.

      Littlewood was a director, writer, actor, producer. I’ll go out on a limb and make a bold claim: English theatre owes its ongoing vitality to Littlewood. While waves of Oxbridge men forged the modern orthodoxy of British theatre at the big institutional theatres in London in the second half of the 20th century, Littlewood cultivated a vigorous heterodox tradition outside the capital. While the orthodoxy was authored, literary, often establishmentarian even when it wasn’t, Littlewood’s work was collaborative, communal, unstuffy, demotic, naughty, a little wild. She and her artists looked to music hall and the street, they improvised, mucked up, slept where they worked. She made theatre from life. Ever since, almost any time English theatre has started to bung itself up with its own importance, the alternative tradition that Littlewood championed has sprung to its salvation.

      So when Delaney sent her play to Littlewood, she wasn’t mucking around. Littlewood clearly recognised an original voice; even Delaney’s cover letter rang out with self-declared newness* : “…no matter what sort of theatrical atrocity [this play] might be, it isn’t valueless so far as I’m concerned… I know nothing, have nothing – except a willingness to learn – and intelligence.” Littlewood took up the challenge, led Delaney and the play through a pretty thorough rejig, and gave it a resounding first production, with a jazz band on stage, and danced transitions. It transferred to the West End. Dozens of international productions followed. A film. The Beatles and The Smiths wrote songs with lyrics taken from the play. It was a legendary beginning.

      What have we talked about as we’ve made this production, the first in Australia for maybe 40 years? We’ve talked about choice. How many other different Jos could Jo have been? How much power does she have over her own life? Where do her choices lie? When does she get to take control? What choice did Helen ever have? Is it too late to start again now? How many goes do you get at life?

      We’ve talked about change, history. That it’s not always public, legislated, protested for. Sometimes history is made sitting on the toilet, or in the midst of a messy scrap between a mother and a daughter, in a dank room held together by layers of paint in an overlooked corner of the city. History is difficult sex, personal grief, wishful thinking, instinct, accident, rage, recklessness, awkwardness. The future is made on the low, lonely level in any nook and corner of life. This is especially true of the struggle for liberation and equality – the struggle to be allowed to make something of yourself.

      We’ve talked a lot about copying and taking on roles. Copying other people is a deep part of life. We’ve been happy and lucky to have Agnes Page in our rehearsal room. Agnes is nine months old, the daughter of our designers Mel Page and Stef Gregory. Agnes copies. You can see the mirror neurones firing away like an electrical storm. That process never ends. Sometimes you can look at the world around you and see yourself, and know how to live. You watch and copy. But sometimes you look at the world around you and there’s no sign of you. Then what do you do? What if no one else is like you? What if you’re a bit wrong, a bit daft? How do you learn what action to take, what choice to make, if you’re nowhere to be found? People who can’t find other people to copy, roles to inhabit, will die or break apart. Every one of the people in the play needs to find a reflection somewhere, from someone, in drink, in sex, in art, in fooling about, in the daily grind, or they’ll break or die.

      I guess the aim of a good society is to make sure that everyone can find themselves in it somewhere; that we all have a role to play; and that that role is not a lie.

      If there isn’t a role for you, then there is one other choice than death or disintegration. You can stake a claim to your originality. Being a bit wrong, a bit daft, is a precarious position to be in, but if you play it right you can turn wrong into something new. A new way of life. A new role. Something that other daft people might find their place in. You might be able to break in a new form, and make some history. Littlewood did it. Delaney did with this play. Does Jo?

      * You can find the letter online – it’s worth googling.

    • Shelagh Delaney, a true rebel by Charlotte Delaney

      I was asked recently what effect A Taste of Honey had had on my life. All I could remember were a handful of idiot teachers who said things like: “I bet you want to be a writer when you grow up, don’t you?” and ‘”Do you want to be famous, like your mum?” Then there were the others who insisted on asking me to wax lyrical about the symbolism of a bare light bulb in a squalid flat. Of course there is no symbolism; it’s exactly the right thing in the right place. Had it been an exquisite Tiffany lamp – well that would be a different matter. My mum rarely talked about Honey except to tell me she’d refused yet another request to mount a production of it in the Capital. Most of the articles I have read have concentrated on that iconic moment in her life and why it was never repeated. The fact that she continued to work, to write, her whole life, is apparently dwarfed by a lack of “fame” which is, as we know, the currency used to measure a person’s talent these days.

      When she was made an honorary member of the Mark Twain society in 1977, she felt immensely proud; when the many radio plays she wrote in the latter years of her life were produced, she was immensely proud; when Dance With a Stranger was critically acclaimed, she was immensely proud; when she held any of her three grandchildren in her arms, she was immensely proud and, when Alicia and I set up Reel Rebels Radio, she was immensely proud.

      My mum enjoyed much of the success Honey brought to her door: it gave her the freedom to explore the world, with me in tow usually; the money was nice and she was always generous with it and she met many of her heroes: Stirling Moss; Studs Terkel; Karen Blixen; Paul Newman; Katharine Hepburn – the list goes on and on. However, she did not want to be tied down to an idea of who she was ‘then’ and I think any of the people who continued to have a friendship with her after this brief moment in time, would agree. In 1960, Ken Russell made a short film, Shelagh Delaney’s Salford, and it’s plain to see that even as a young woman, she had far more on her mind than ‘how to be famous’.

      My mum was able, better than anybody else I’ve ever met, to live in the present moment and although she was proud of Honey’s success and happy to leave behind a body of work that included it, she was no Miss Havisham, lost in the past and longing for its return. One of the main reasons she never allowed a big production of Honey to be done in London in her lifetime was because she couldn’t bear the thought of those relentless and predictable questions – and those relentless quotes from people who had been there but who had little to say about her in the here and now.

      “When I’m dead you can take care of A Taste of Honey,” she said. “And send that Morrissey chap something from me.”

      Done and done.

      Contrary to popular belief, it was watching a production of Waiting for Godot whilst working as an usherette, that gave her the push she needed to lock herself away with a borrowed typewriter and write A Taste of HoneyGodot showed her that there were other voices that absolutely needed to be written and to be heard. That the theatre, like a good fairground, should have something for everyone. Time was of the essence, her father was dying and she wanted it finished before he was. Fortunately that particular deadline was met.

      Until The National’s performance of A Taste of Honey in 2014, the only performance of it I had seen was Peter Zadek’s production in Hamburg. He had used the first and original script, which would have been fine if he hadn’t got carried away with the music which made it too long. Having agreed to the National’s request to stage it, I thought it best if I read it again; up until that point it was something I’d talked about with my mum, but not given a whole lot of thought. It was a good job because one of the cast members asked me: “What do you think A Taste of Honey is really about?”

      Here is my honest reply to that question.

      Above and beyond anything else, Honey is about the two women, Helen and Jo. This mother and daughter, growing up together, growing apart together, growing back together again, are at the heart of the play. And, I would suggest, are what makes it a timeless piece. If we consider the way in which women of all ages are discussed and portrayed in all manner of mediums, the vocabulary used, the judgements passed – yes, even today in our so-called post-feminist times, it’s easy to see that little has really changed. A few years ago, while I was lying in a hospital bed enjoying the effects of morphine and dihydrocodeine, I overheard a female patient complaining to her visitor about “…these young girls who get themselves pregnant so they can live off the state.” If I’d had the power of speech at that moment I would have asked her from which hills and valleys these young women were gathering this wayward sperm. And what was this princely sum on which they were all living the life of Riley?

      A woman – Helen – leaving a marriage because there isn’t enough sex, raising a war baby alone, trying to have a good time whilst doing it and, of course, like all the best mothers, making mistakes along the way, is still a rarity. Or rather, for her to be written with wit and poetry and no moral assessment of her character, is a rarity. And that girl, Jo, with her back-chat, a “fuck you” attitude and a penchant for gorgeous black men, she too is written with humour, courage and dare I say it, love. These women are not tragedies, even if their lives have tragedy woven into them and at the end of the play, they get rid of the men and crack on with the job of life together – maybe not forever but certainly “for now”. It’s not that men are redundant in the lives of these women, they just aren’t essential. And that, my friends, is still a big deal. Helen could stay with Peter and be warm and clothed and fed and miserable. She tries it for a while, but her heart leads her back to her daughter.

      Jo, similarly, could stick it out with Geoff, the nagging, cloying, house proud parent she’s never had – perhaps the parent she thought she’d always wanted. But there’s always a price to pay, and neither of these women are prepared to pay it. Instead they choose to defiantly and unrepentantly live their lives according to their own sensibilities, their own humour, and their own choice. Uncompromising, I think, is the word. These strong female characters are the real deal, in a real world – not gun-toting, ass kicking, fit birds that nonetheless end up in the arms of the leading man.

      If this play were to be written now, my mum could replace the black sailor with a radical Islamist enjoying a moment of weakness and the effeminate art student might become a transgender wo/man. Whoever might shock the most would do the trick. Peter would stay the charming and abusive man he already is – they never go out of fashion – although perhaps these days he might be a drug dealer or a builder with a sideline in something shifty. But Helen and Jo wouldn’t have to change a hair on their heads or a word in their dialogue to get people tutting and muttering.

      It’s the 21st century and we are still trying to explain why a little bit of sexual harassment is not okay.

      It’s the 21st century and we are still turfing young single mothers out on the street.

      It’s the 21st century and women are still being killed every week by their ‘partners’.

      Oh yes, we still need Helen and Jo. So to return to the original question: What effect has Honey had on my life? Not much. But the calibre of the woman who wrote it – well – that’s bred deep in the bone, flourishes in the blood and is something I am regularly and frequently, grateful for.

      Charlotte Delaney is writer-in-residence for Women in Humanities at the University of Oxford. She has worked with the Guinness Partnership, along with a number of other local organisations to establish a theatre program for the residents of Delaney Heights, an affordable housing complex in Salford. Through Charlotte’s tireless efforts, while Delaney Heights was under constructions, Charlotte was instrumental in transforming it into an immersive space for theatre, storytelling and live art.

      Charlotte runs creative writing workshops and devotes her spare time to assisting a women’s aid group to help young women explore their creative potential. Charlotte’s own works have been performed both in the UK and the United States, including New York City. She used to write for the English radio serial, The Archers.

      Shelagh Delaney, a true rebel was originally published in 2014, and revised in 2018. It is reprinted by kind permission of the author.

    • Behind the scenes with Stefan Gregory

      Award-winning composer and sound designer, Stefan Gregory, talks about the upcoming production of Shelagh Delaney’s ground-breaking 1958 play, A Taste of Honey, and what life is like as a composer and sound designer for the theatre.

      You’ve worked on a number of Belvoir shows, and the latest, A Taste of Honey, is about to open. Can you tell us a bit about your process ? Does it change according to the director?

      My basic process is actually quite similar on different shows. I watch rehearsals and imagine different music in my head. Then I find references, generate huge amounts of material and then I select only small parts of that to try. Only a smaller subsection of that makes it into the show.

      What’s very different between shows is the nature of the material I make. I often work in very different genres, sometimes within the same show, for example, ancient choral music and psychedelic rock guitar.

      An important part of my process involves enforced forgetfulness. When I write something, I immediately move on to something else to wipe my mind, and I won’t return to it until significant time has passed, so I can listen to it and not recognise it, so I don’t feel close to it anymore. That way you can ask yourself, in quite a cold, objective way, without feeling sentimental about your creation – is this right for the show?

      Making decisions as late as possible is also important, and shouldn’t be mistaken for being lazy. The show is still quite unknown until the final week or so, so you don’t know if you’re making the right decisions until then. I frequently have to change my whole idea at the last minute. Again, I see this as a strength not a failure. I’ve seen many shows where they should have thrown out the music, not because the music wasn’t good in itself, but because it wasn’t right for the show. And of course I’ve made that mistake myself.

      How many times do you read the script before mapping out what music will be used?

      I don’t pore over the script that much. But I do watch almost all the rehearsals. I score the production not the play.

      For something like A Taste of Honey where music is intrinsic to the script but it isn’t prescribed, how do you go about choosing what to use?

      Stage directions are usually just a description of what happened in the first production of a play, or else they were put there by the author before rehearsals to make an intention clear. They are a good point of reference, but can be safely ignored most of the time. Unless it results in you getting sued!

      What is involved in being a sound designer versus being a composer for the theatre?

      The terms are confusing and the overlap large. I always do both so I don’t really know where the dividing line lies! When the job is split, those two people have to agree on a way to work together. The combination involves everything from scoring for bassoon to minimising noise floor in a gain structure.

      What’s your favourite part of being a sound designer?

      Writing music that functions perfectly in a production.

      What music are you listening to at the moment?

      Roy Orbison on loop. It’s the only thing my eight-month-old daughter will sleep to in the car. I wish I had more time for domestic listening.

      Do you have a suggested playlist for people coming to see A Taste of Honey?

      A Taste Of Honey was quite influential on popular music. Morrissey from The Smiths was famously a fan, and included many lines from the play and movie in his songs.

      I’d start with:

      This Night Has Opened My Eyes
      This Charming Man
      Reel Around The Fountain
      Hand In Glove
      Shoplifters Of The World Unite

      Morrisey said “I’ve never made any secret of the fact that at least 50 percent of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney.”

      The song A Taste Of Honey was written for the Broadway production and became a pop hit in the 1960s, including a version by The Beatles.

      A TASTE OF HONEY opens on 21 July. Click here to purchase tickets.

    • Podcast

      Step backstage with Eamon Flack and actors Genevieve Lemon, Thuso Lekwape and Taylor Ferguson as they talk about Shelagh Delaney‘s groundbreaking 1958 play, A Taste of Honey. Many of the themes that Delaney was laying bare for all to contemplate 60 years ago are still just as relevant today as they were back then.

      A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney
      Director Eamon Flack

      Podcast produced for Belvoir by Zoe Ferguson.

      21 July – 19 August

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