A Taste of Honey at Royal Exchange, Manchester

Emma Baggott's revival of Shelagh Delaney's classic play places working-class women centre stage.

A Taste of Honey at Royal Exchange, Manchester

A stone’s throw away from the once smoke-lined horizons of the city of Salford, Emma Baggot’s play, A Taste of Honey, is filling up the stage with working-class representation at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. Adapted from Shelagh Delaney’s groundbreaking exploration of 1950s Salford, A Taste of Honey examines the realities, complexities, and struggles of everyday life in this ‘dirty old town.’

Following single mum Helen (Jill Halfpenny) and her daughter Jo (Rowan Robinson) as they flit between temporary housing, Helen leaving behind her ‘fancy men’ for whichever new one promises her escape through marriage, and Jo leaving behind schools, friends, her hopes and dreams. They move into a grimy flat in Salford, a constant cold draft and an oppressive smell of the river, in a constant state of flux between wanting to escape but not having the means to.

Robinson and Halfpenny were phenomenal. They deftly articulated and navigated the nuances of a complex mother-daughter relationship and the infinite intricacies of working-class women. Robinson’s voice and animation filled the stage as we watched Jo grow from a fierce and unabashed teenager to a single-mother unafraid to articulate her disdain in motherhood and rejection of conventional womanhood. Both women were theatrical, animated, strong-willed, and witty. Their one-liners fell to the sound of repeated raucous laughter and their vulnerabilities were exhaled beautifully.

Support from David Moorst who played Geoff, a gay man who comes to live with Jo after finding himself with nowhere to go. Geoff was all at once heartbreakingly tender and ravenously comical. The set and design, staying true to the ‘kitchen-sink’ theatre of the 1950s, included a stripped back, ramshackled flat with characters rarely leaving the comfort - and confinement - of their home. Jazz singer, Nishla Smith, cast ghostly vignettes onto the action, her haunting vocals breaking away from the realism employed. Interspersed between the realistic dialogue and setting were fantastical moments of character’s breaking into song, like Helen dancing along the kitchen floor singing songs from her youth.

The cast is resolute with working-class actors from the North, all piecing together a landscape of post-industrial towns. Rowan Robinson herself is from Salford, and has commented that she felt an ‘immense responsibility’ to make the city proud. Being from Salford myself, mirrored before me were the women I have grown up around. Jo and Helen’s back and forth was satisfyingly reminiscent of how the people I know speak, Helen’s husband Peter (Andrew Sheridan) a man I have met many times in the pub. Having women who are bold in their sexuality, who take up space even though the world does not offer them any, who hold their own against loud and intimidating men as the nucleus of this story is bold for the theatre, but as Delaney did, Baggott’s adaptation reflects how life, how women, in Salford really are. Delaney said that she wrote ‘how people talk’ and Baggott has not left this behind.

Baggott follows Delaney’s radical decision - a decision still unbelievably radical today - to place working-class women centre stage. To have the lives of the men who exist around them wax and wane, ebb and flow to the beat of their drum. Placing the complexities, struggles, wants and needs, the ordinary life of a single-mum in working-class England in such an extraordinary environment, was an important and courageous choice for Delaney, and continues to be for Baggott too.

Although the city that Delaney gave space to is rapidly fading away, the lives, struggles, and issues her women faced are still as ever-present in 2024. Women who have to sing a wistful song full of hopes and dreams and dance as they fade away. Women who make space for themselves in a world that doesn’t afford them that luxury. These women were complex and multi-faceted and portrayed in all their glory, and absence of. As Jo says about her mother, full of love and annoyance, ‘she is all sorts of woman.’ The echoes of Delaney’s dirty old town rang all around.

A Taste of Honey is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, until the 13th of April.

Header Image Credit: Royal Exchange Theatre

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Lauren Chadwick

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