A taste of Honey – Middle and working classes meet at the Kitchen sink. (Theatre Review)
A taste of Honey
Belvoir Street Theatre
21 July – 19 August
Images: Brett Boardman
Kitchen Sink realism predates Punk Music by around ten to twenty years, but its intention to reflect segments of society back to mainstream culture carry a similar aesthetic, if with (perhaps) a touch more honesty. While Punk Music saw intelligent young middle class kids railing against the bourgeoisie culture of their parents and a political regime they saw disenfranchising the (white) poor, Kitchen Sink Realism foreshadowed this revolution via writers like Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey) and John Osborne (Look Back In Anger) who stood inside white privilege, churning the bellies of their audiences with a nasty bout of observational truth. A Taste of Honey becomes more than a joyful narrative about the working class when we observe all social taboos are manifest; from homosexuality and mixed race relations, through to emotionally abusive mothers and abortion. What the white middle class may perceive as distasteful is part of the colour and vibrancy of the lives of the working class.
This then begs an observation that deserves reflection. If A Taste of Honey is of its time, if it displays taboos that are generally more accepted today, if its current manifestation is dutifully covered by television programs like Eastenders and Neighbors, then why is it still so appealing? This current production at Belvoir fulfils on all a main stages essentials, and yet a determined connectivity between social classes (that are less and less evident) continues to imbue the play. The dignity of Genevieve Lemon’s Helen, despite all her grotesque refusals of motherhood, is undeniable. While it must be included that the actress sets the character on fire (the stage lights up whenever Genevieve Lemon is on it) it is equally true that a piece of us wants Helen to be real. Her existence challenges, both actively and passively, what the dominating culture sees as truth. The challenge for Shelagh Delaney through Helen was to set up a more authentic sense of truth. By going beneath the truth of the parent culture, A Taste of Honey is essentially sorting through that culture in order to make another way, or to define an alternate world view and philosophy. Each of the institutions and traditions Helen is against defines every aspect of her life. She refuses to be a serious wife, yet longs for the legitimacy of marriage. She refuses to be a serious mother, yet evokes the maternal bond to control her child. She lives the crazy life, yet laments the sexual betrayal of her playboy husband. She wants to party, yet evokes anger when her child demonstrates similar behavior. However, when you pick Helen apart, you don’t find chaos but a very well established and defined code that tints everything from the colour of her hair to her behavior and social activity. This is the unavoidable truth of Helen that shocks us: She is who she is for very good reasons and her action is as connected to her adaptation as our own adaptation to the dominant culture.
It is this timeless connection we feel that Shelagh Delaney has established in A Taste of Honey that gives the play its enduring nature. If clearly delineated class has all but disappeared, poverty hasn’t. Money that flows in and out according to the turn of a friendly card is one of the hallmarks of poverty and explains Helen’s fancy hat as much as it explains today’s ubiquitous thousand dollar phone. Yet, A taste of Honey reflects the absence of access the poor have to knowledge of a wealthy lifestyle obliterated by globalism and the internet today. Helen may have been poor, working class and a certain kind of ‘white trash,’ but we still connect to her through class. The other side of the tracks is dependent on the other side for its existence. Helen masks her survival as chaos for our comfort. Our survival is masked as control for hers.
This current production of A Taste of Honey at Belvoir Street Theatre is beautifully manifest. Eamon Flack calls forth superb performances from the entire cast providing audiences with a true opportunity to see this iconic play at one of our best local theatres. The set and costuming by Mel Page are compelling and involving drawing the audience into the worlds of Helen and Jo seamlessly. Of particular joy in this production is the movement direction by Kate Champion which brings beauty to tragedy and finesse to the mundane with a sophisticated knowing that delights and inspires.
A Taste of Honey is a thrilling play written by an exciting young playwright at a culturally stimulating time. It has become an icon of a movement that brought us closer to ourselves and broke down walls between classes and taught us to seek and see beauty in the everyday. This production at Belvoir is as good a manifestation of this iconic play as you will see, and is well worth the journey on a cold winter’s night.