A Taste of Honey (1958) overview
Written when she was 19, Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey is both a landmark of ‘kitchen sink’ realism and of feminist drama.
Teenage Jo lives with her single mother Helen, a woman who is hardened by life, an alcoholic and ‘a good time girl’. The play begins with them moving into a shabby flat. Jo has ideas about being an artist, but they’ve moved so often, it’s made serious study impossible. Now she just wants to leave school and find a job so that she can stand on her own feet.
The confrontations between mother and daughter intensify after Helen’s younger boyfriend Peter arrives and makes her a more-or-less sincere offer of marriage. Jo’s boyfriend, Jimmy, a young black sailor, also offers to marry her, even though he will be going away to sea for six months.
The relationship between Jo and Helen is volatile and messily co-dependent. Although there is resentment between them, there is also affection. The first act ends with Helen telling Jo that her real father was ‘a not very bright man’ who she turned to because her marriage was sexless.
In Act 2 it is revealed that Jo is now pregnant and her boyfriend is still away at sea. She is living alone in the same rundown flat. She comes home with Geoffrey, a gay art student who has been asked to leave his former lodgings, and asks him to stay with her. They become friends and he too offers to marry her, though it is clear that ‘it is not marrying love between us’. He attempts to reunite her with Helen, but this does not go well.
In the second scene of Act 2, Jo is not far away from giving birth when Helen returns to the flat after discovering that Peter has had an affair. Helen forces Geoffrey to leave. When Helen discovers that the father of Jo’s baby is black she becomes distressed and abandons Jo again. The play ends with Jo alone and going into labour, unaware that Geoffrey has also left.
Key productions of A Taste of Honey
A Taste of Honey was originally staged at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1958 in a production directed by Joan Littlewood, before transferring to the West End.
In its Broadway run it starred Joan Plowright and Angela Lansbury as Jo and Helen. It was filmed in 1961, with Delaney co-writing the screenplay.
The play is still frequently performed. There were major revivals in 2008 at Manchester Royal Exchange, and in 2014 at the National Theatre with Lesley Sharp playing the role of Helen.