“I’m an extraordinary person,” announces Jo, the protagonist of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. She isn’t wrong. This rarely revived late-1950s drama, now playing at the Pearl in a production directed by Austin Pendleton, follows a smart, flinty, outspoken teenager, ahead of her time and admirably unconcerned with societal expectations. The fascinations of watching Jo make a case for why this play — which is both a revealing document of its era and at times maddeningly repetitive — deserves attention today.
A Taste of Honey made Delaney’s name in 1958, when Joan Littlewood produced its premiere at her experimental Theatre Workshop. It played the West End and Broadway, and it has been compared to John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which launched the class-conscious, harshly realist so-called “Angry Young Men” movement. But Delaney’s play is, notably, about an angry young woman instead. Set in Delaney’s industrial hometown of Salford, England, Honey follows Jo (Rebekah Brockman) and her mother, Helen (Rachel Botchan), as they conduct an extended battle: for survival, and against each other.
We meet the women as they grudgingly move in to a new home: a leaky, drafty flat near a gasworks and a slaughterhouse. (Harry Feiner’s set features an impressionistic backdrop of sooty roofs extending into the distance — evoking both the smog-enveloped town and the sketches Jo makes in her spare time.) As Honey unfolds, Delaney catalogs a comprehensive list of social issues, exploring class, race, sexuality, and unmarried motherhood. Helen raised Jo alone, and none too lovingly, according to Jo. Now, while Helen chases her latest marital prospect, Peter (Bradford Cover), Jo falls in love with Jimmy (Ade Otukoya), a black sailor from the Navy. Soon Jo’s pregnant and Jimmy has vanished. Eventually, Jo acquires a new roommate, Geoffrey (John Evans Reese), who, it’s hinted, is homeless because his landlady caught him with another man.
Most of the play consists of angry, often circular confrontations:between Helen and Jo, who bear endless resentments toward each other; between Jo and Peter (whom Jo doesn’t trust); between Helen and Geoffrey (whom Helen doesn’t trust). Such scenes are most interesting when they explore Jo’s desires. In Brockman’s hands, Delaney’s heroine is stubborn, unsentimental, and fascinatingly difficult to read, presenting a smooth, often hostile surface that repels easy attempts at psychoanalysis. A lovely three-piece band — trumpet (Max Boiko), guitar (Phil Faconti), and bass (Walter Stinson) — provides musical interludes, influenced by both jazz and music-hall aesthetics, which swell up between the characters’ rounds of recrimination, offering relief and lending the production a heightened, presentational tone.
The secondary characters, though, don’t offer the same intriguing complexities as Jo — especially Helen, who, endlessly desperate for both attention and whiskey, evolves little over the course of the play. After two and a half hours, the ceaseless bouts of accusation and counter-accusation between Helen and Jo wear thin. Perhaps Delaney was unsympathetic to the over-thirty set (she was roughly Jo’s age when she wrote Honey, which pointedly notes that Helen is forty). Or perhaps a few choice edits on Pendleton’s part would have done the trick. Still, Honey justifies its revival, offering a perspective we don’t often see onstage: a working-class-female struggle to survive, unfolding at a time when lives like Jo’s were heavily constricted — but when the world was on the cusp of change.
A Taste of Honey
By Shelagh Delaney
The Pearl Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street
Through October 30