Friday, 21 November 2008

Taste of Honey, Royal Exchange Theatre, Monday 17 November

Unless you can afford the best seats, an evening at the theatre often involves sitting up in the gods peering down at the tiny players on stage below. A new production of Shelagh Delaney's slice of life play Taste of Honey, however, throws the conventional theatrical experience out onto the cold Salford wind.

DJ Jon Winstanley, who's providing a live soundtrack to the show, plays Northern Soul while we wait for the play to start, so it feels more like going to see a film at the cinema, complete with pre-movie muzak, than a formal trip to the theatre. By the time of the interval, I want to get up and dance.

My 'seat' is a doorstep, an extension of the set. My feet touch the smooth, green-blue slabs of the Salford street below, which are wet with glossy patches of rainwater. Other audience members sit on a sofa, and a dilapidated brick wall on the edge of the stage. I can see the grain of the floorboards, worn smooth at the edges, and the glow of the cellar lights going down into the street. I can make out the patterns of the wallpaper and curtains, as well as the broken banister and the frayed carpet that doesn't quite cover the floor. I'm in the thick of things before the play even starts.

When the players run on to the loud, brash blare of the Ting Tings, carrying their whole material lives in a wheelbarrow, the tenement comes alive, crackling with sexual tension and claustrophobia.

We can taste the weak coffee and feel the coldness of the two room flat. We smell the smoke of the cigars and cigarettes Helen's boyfriend Peter (Paul Popplewell), a shady upstart with an eye-patch, smokes. The dripping ceiling leaks into a bucket like a tinny clock beat of decay, ticking with the regularity of a watery metronome. A lone light bulb flickers. We shiver in solidarity with the characters, feeling the chill of a city where “there are two seasons – winter and winter”.

Sally Lindsay is the curvy, glamorous single mother Helen, a sexually voracious vamp with her blonde hair in rollers. An ageing alcoholic, she provides a contrast to her frumpy 15-year-old daughter, played by Jodie McNee, that would be tragic if it wasn't so humorous. Pinch faced and stick like, the mouthy Jo resembles Quentin Blake's scrawny depiction of Roald Dahl's precocious young girl Matilda.

Helen and Jo are on first name terms, and more like an antagonistic, longsuffering married couple than mother and child. Perpetually chattering Helen barely gives Jo a chance to speak, and they have very few moments of calm in which to really talk.

Taste of Honey is a play about relationships and power. It's almost a play of two bickering married couples; Helen and Jo, and Jo and Geoff. Geoff, a foppish, ginger haired art student played by Adam Gillen, is the play's main source of comedy, but also its main voice of reason. He cares for Jo when she becomes pregnant as the result of a then taboo mixed-race relationship. He steps into the nurturing role Helen should have had in Jo's life.

The play, written when Delaney was 18, may have turned 50 this year, but updating it to include Manchester and Salford pop hits such as the Ting Tings' obnoxious, catchy Shut Up and Let Me Go, demonstrates that teenage attitude and bravado doesn't change over time. Even though Jo's future looks set to recreate Helen's adult life of “work and want”, she's irrepressibly upbeat and boasts “I can do anything when I put my mind to it”.

Nor does the excitement of first love change over the years, providing hope against a backdrop of hardship and poverty. The characters sing and dance out their inner feelings to a cast of Manchester greatest hits that includes Oasis and Inspiral Carpets, Ian Brown, Happy Mondays and Northern Soul. It’s a form of escapist musical soliloquy: the characters can’t talk to each other - they’re too busy to listen. The songs of the Smiths are centre stage, the characters referencing famous lyrics such as 'I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice', and 'If a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die'. It's a nod to the influence the play has had on popular culture, not least Morrissey's lyrics.

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