First Look: A Taste of Honey

January 22, 2013 | By More

Pictures from Royal Lyceum and interview with Mark Thomson

Rebecca Ryan as Jo, Charlie Ryan as Geoffrey and Lucy Black as Helen in the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh's Winter 2013 production of A Taste of Honey. Photo: Alan McCredie

Rebecca Ryan (Jo), Charlie Ryan (Geoffrey) and Lucy Black (Helen). Photo: Alan McCredie

By Thom Dibdin
Photos by Alan McCredie

The Royal Lyceum has released the first pictures from its new production of A Taste of Honey, which opens tonight, Tuesday, for a three week run.

The debut play by Shelagh Delaney, written when she was 18, it tells the story of Jo, a 17-year-old lass from Salford who is abandoned by her man-hungry mother and sailor boyfriend.

First produced by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1958, it addressed issues of class, gender, race and sexuality at a time when these were largely taboo subjects. The following year it transferred to the Wyndham. Delaney adapted the screenplay for the 1961 film starring Rita Tushingham as Jo and Dora Bryan as her mother.

The Royal Lyceum’s artistic director Mark Thomson spoke exclusively to the Annals on why he decided to commission the production in 2013 Edinburgh, 55 years after it was first produced, and about the process by which plays come to be staged at the Lyceum.

Lucy Black as Helen, Keith Fleming as Peter and Rebecca Ryan as Jo in the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh's Winter 2013 production of A Taste of Honey. Photo: Alan McCredie

Lucy Black (Helen), Keith Fleming (Peter) and Rebecca Ryan (Jo). Photo: Alan McCredie

“I didn’t think we would be doing A Taste of Honey,” he starts off, thoughtfully, as he begins to explain the process. “John [Dove] and Tony [Cownie], my associates, they go away and read some scripts – find something they are passionate about.

“That is the starting point for doing anything on that stage, you have to feel passionate about it.” And there is already passion in Thomson’s voice. “Because if you are not driven and passionate about it, then I am going to see that at the end of it. And it might be perfectly presentable, clever and effective but it will never get the magic.”

Returning to the play in hand he continues: “Tony came to me with A Taste of Honey and I was “OK – this is going to be Grim Up North, isn’t it”. I remember watching the film 20 years ago but I had forgotten about it and I have never seen the play done. Tony’s going “Just read it…” and it absolutely confounded everything I thought about it.

“Fizzing and crackling”
Rebecca Ryan as Jo  in the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh's Winter 2013 production of A Taste of Honey. Photo: Alan McCredie

Rebecca Ryan (Jo). Photo: Alan McCredie

“Number one, my first job, my first professional theatre assistantship was in the Theatre Royal Stratford East under the inspirational Philip Hedley and he was the assistant to Joan Littlewood.

“Joan Littlewood found Delaney – and it has got her all over it as much as Delaney. What was interesting was how unnaturalistic it is, the writing absolutely bounces off the page, it fizzes and it crackles.”

By now Thomson is fizzing and crackling himself, as he explains what it is about the script which enthused him so much.

“It doesn’t feel “And let me take you back ….”,” he says. “It’s got all the hallmarks of a Littlewood production because it celebrates: it has got verve, pace, energy. It feels so fresh, because it is a young woman meeting Littlewood, and so it bounces onto the stage with great life.

“Of course, what you have got is a group of people in adversity: financial adversity and social adversity. The family has cracked up to hell. Those were the days of the nuclear family and you have a mother who might be a whore – or not – but there is no father around, you have got a young girl getting pregnant, you have got everything in it. That is the start.”

There is more to it, however, than a museum piece, albeit one with a gripping story and a script that engages from the off.

“It is interesting to come and meet it again,” Thomson continues thoughtfully. “Hopefully we have moved on an awful lot in terms of homophobia and accepting broader sexuality. But, of course, she meets a young black man and one of the things I thought when I came back from London was “Where are all the black people?” It is still so white, Edinburgh, our society is really white and the villages that surround it are white.

Adrian Decosta as Jimmie and Rebecca Ryan as Jo in the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh's Winter 2013 production of A Taste of Honey. Photo: Alan McCredie

Adrian Decosta (Jimmie) and Rebecca Ryan (Jo). Photo: Alan McCredie

“So actually, weirdly, and I don’t mean this in any negative way, it is still an exotic thought, for most – even if everyone we see on TV is black. It is not about prejudice, it is about exotic thought and that creates an unease or a question, even.”

It is a challenging statement about Edinburgh, but from the glint in his eye, and thoughtfully passionate way he frames his comments, it is not simply about being confrontational. You can see that Thomson is intent on ensuring that the plays performed on the Lyceum’s stage are more than simple entertainments. He points out that A Taste of Honey carries different weight in Edinburgh than it might in London, Birmingham or Liverpool.

Here is a play which is being produced for more reasons than a simple fondness for it, or even the fact that it is a damn good play. There is, perhaps, a relevance to producing it here and now?

“Yes, it is relevant,” he agrees, before qualifying the statement. “It is interesting the whole relevance thing. I used to use “relevant”all the time but I think “relevant” is oppressive to art. I think resonant is a really good word.

“John Byrne said to me: “Resonant, Mark” – and I think resonant is a really good word, it doesn’t tie you down, it is not literal. One of the great dangers I think is the politicisation of theatre where actually we become over-concerned with the literal relevance.

“There has to be theatre that grabs contemporary events and issues and goes head on with them. But there also has to be the joy of creating something special – as long as it resonates. If it doesn’t resonate, then nothing is going to happen. People will just sit there.”

And, whatever your reaction to Tony Cownie’s production of this classic post-war play, just sitting there, unmoved, is highly unlikely.

A Taste of Honey runs at the Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street, Edinburgh, 21 January – 9 February 2013. Performances: Tue-Sat, 7.45pm, with matinees at 2.30pm Weds and Sat.

It stars Rebecca Ryan as Jo, Lucy Black as Helen, Keith Fleming as Peter, Adrian Decosta as Jimmie and Charlie Ryan as Geoffrey. Direction is by Tony Cownie with design by Janet Bird.

Full details of tickets and prices on the Royal Lyceum website: www.lyceum.org.uk/
Box Office: 0131 248 4848.
The script of the play is available on Amazon here: “A Taste of Honey” (Modern Plays) (Modern Classics)
The 1961 film is available on DVD. You can buy it here, on Amazon: A Taste of Honey [DVD] [1961]

ENDS

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