York Theatre Royal, July 8-12, 2014
Playwright Shelagh Delaney was inspired to put pen to paper after seeing a production of Terence Rattigan’s Variations On A Theme. She wasn’t blown away by the story of the love affair between Margaret Leighton and the much younger actor Laurence Harvey, she just thought she could do better.
The result of her 19-year-old cockiness was A Taste Of Honey, a funny, touching and, at the time, shocking dissection of Britain’s post-war dysfunctionality set amid the rubble and grime of a Manchester tenement.
Her key character, Jo, is also a cocky teenager, sticking two fingers up at the world from the soot-smeared window of the grotty bedsit she shares with her flighty mother, Helen, whose morals are just slightly looser than her grasp on money.
In this widely-acclaimed joint production by Hull Truck and Derby Theatre, young actress Rebecca Ryan, probably best known for her long-running role as Debbie Gallagher in Channel 4’s Shameless, acts her little white cotton ankle-socks off as Jo, punching and jabbing through every line in a never-ending battle with her over-bearing, slack-drawed mother.
It’s a praiseworthy performance, and not just because of the sheer number of lines she’s had to learn to power her way through a two-hour centre-stage role in which her only respite is five minutes under an eiderdown as her mother bullies her only friend out of her life.
Ryan gives a powerhouse performance, expertly going toe-to-toe with experienced actress Julie Riley as a drawling, ferociously funny (and sometimes just downright ferocious) matriarch with a heart as dark and murky as the Manchester ship canal.
A trio of men – Christopher Hancock as Jo’s gay best friend Geoff; Lekan Lawal as sailor and Jo’s baby-daddy Jimmie; and James Weaver as Helen’s drunk-as-a-skunk (and about as welcome in a small bedsit) suitor Peter – give able support and provide wonderful vocal accompaniment throughout a production that makes effective use of evocative music.
But this show is not about them; it’s about the women they love and leave, a mother and daughter whose constant battles with life and each other provide two talented actresses with the chance to shine amid the dank, bare-bulb half-light of a Manchester bedsit.
Sometimes success tastes sweet as honey, but in this case it’s pepper-sharp, and all the better for it.