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  • Writer's pictureSTEVE COOKE AATA

A Taste of Honey at the Royal Exchange Theatre is still very relevant TODAY


Review by Steve Cooke


How relevant today is Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play A Taste of Honey?


After seeing Emma Baggott’s production at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester I can confidently say VERY!


Of course, societal norms and values have changed since the 1950’s as evidenced by such as the availability of the contraceptive pill, decriminalisation of homosexuality, acceptance of mixed-race relationships and single motherhood [orphanages at that time were full of illegitimate children] – however the effects of poverty on people’s life choices certainly hasn’t and it can’t be denied that there are still the residues permeating our society of homophobia, racism, attitudes about what constitutes a ‘family’ and what ‘good parenting’ looks like.


“It feels so unbelievably relevant,” says Jill Halfpenny, taking on the role of Helen. “They are such outliers in the way they live, so much on the boundary of what is acceptable and what is expected of them. The choices they make would still have some people comment and turn their noses up at them today.”


Women are still judged for their choices, particularly as mothers, says director Emma Baggott. She recalls working on a show at the Royal Shakespeare Company just before Covid: “I was the only mother in the company. But there were quite a few fathers, and no one ever commented on the fact that the fathers were away for a long period of time from their children. But it was commented upon extensively that I had left my daughter – who was 14 or 15 at the time, and totally fine to be left with her dad.”


There is very little left of the Salford that colours the lives of Delaney’s characters. Media City has replaced the docks, there are now shiny high-rises packed full of students and media-types where there once stood the terraces soon to become the focus of ‘slum clearance’ - where Jill Halfpenny’s promiscuous mother, Helen, abandons her teenage daughter, Jo, in an oppressively seedy bedsit.


The 19-year-old Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey on a borrowed typewriter after her very first trip to the theatre, having decided she could do better than the play she had seen on a date at Manchester’s Opera House. Sixty-six years later, and 13 after her death from breast cancer, we are half a mile away at the Royal Exchange - a cotton trading centre during her teenage years.


Rowan Robinson as daughter Jo is at the centre of the play with her sharp wit and vocal disdain of her mother and mother’s boyfriend. Her lines are way beyond those of a schoolgirl, lines reflecting a resilience developed as a reaction to a total absence of parenting from her mother, who she calls Helen and who behaves more like a self-centred stroppy teenager than her daughter.


Jill Halfpenny loves two women being centre stage, rather than as supporting characters to men. “It’s lovely to have that time on stage together where you’re not just coming in as the partner, or as the girlfriend. We have boyfriends coming in. That’s great, isn’t it?”


Three very different, but equally weak, males come in and out of Jo and Helen’s lives as love interest fuelled by desperation. Andrew Sheridan’s Peter encapsulates lecherous entitlement, Obadiah’s Jimmy promises to be a way out for Jo but inevitably lets her down and David Moorst’s Geoffrey, a necessarily closeted gay man, is desperate to be Jo’s baby’s dad but not strong enough to overcome Helen who tries to reassert herself in a mother/grandmother role following her latest dumping.


David Moorst and Rowan Robinson deliver comedic lines and heart-warming interactions that lighten the atmosphere and generate outbursts of audience laughter.


Peter Butler’s set with crane-like metal beams allude to the industrial ‘dirty old town’ -metal beams that are lined with fairground lights creating an atmosphere of both harsh grittiness and glimpses of hope.


Nishla Smith poignantly sings verses of Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town”, written about Salford, and complements the play’s jazz rhythms that are perfectly paced throughout this nearly three hours of totally engaging and highly relevant live theatre.



Jill Halfpenny as Helen

David Moorst as Geoffrey

Obadiah as Jimmie

Rowan Robinson as Josephine

Andrew Sheridan as Peter

Nishla Smith as the Jazz Singer



Written by: Shelagh Delaney

Directed by: Emma Baggott

Designer: Peter Butler

Lighting Designer: Simisola Majekodunmi

Sound Designer: George Dennis

Fight and Intimacy Director: Kaitlin Howard

Arranger/Orchestrator: Alexandra Faye Braithwaite

Movement Director: Sarita Piotrowski

Voice and Dialect Coach: Natalie Grady

Casting Director: Annelie Powell CDG

Casting Assistant: Alice Walters

Birkbeck Assistant Director: Sam Holland-Bunyan

Photo by Johan Persson


 A Taste of Honey is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, St. Ann’s Square, Manchester M2 7DH, until 13 April.

Phone: 0161 833 9833

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