For most New York theatergoers – even those who have lived here since the mid-1980s like myself – Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey has been a play one has heard about, perhaps read, but not seen. Written by Delaney when she was just 18, the drama made a big splash when it premiered in London in 1958 and was a Broadway success in 1961 with Joan Plowright and Angela Lansbury. Since then it has been staged only once in New York, in 1981. Luckily, the Pearl Theatre Company has mounted a spot-on production of this little-seen gem. The cast is pretty perfect, and director Austin Pendleton (who apparently was so shaken by the original Broadway production that he suffered a panic attack in the theater bathroom afterward) has staged it beautifully.
Set in a dreary tenement apartment in postwar northern England, A Taste of Honey is largely a mother-daughter story. It’s a kitchen-sink drama, only we don’t see the grubby sink; the kitchen lies behind the bedroom that Helen (Rachel Botchan) shares with her teenage daughter, Jo (Rebekah Brockman). Helen works in pubs and has moved frequently from job to job and man to man, dragging Jo along with her. Jo, even more disagreeable than most teens, isn’t too lovable herself. As Helen says directly to the audience, “Wouldn’t she get on your nerves?” Yes, but Jo has plenty to complain about. Helen is a terrible mother, and their latest apartment is downright squalid. They share a bathroom with their neighbors, and the flat overlooks a gasworks and a slaughterhouse.
Although Helen and Jo are definitely flawed characters, Delaney makes them relatable. They’re both just trying to survive, and there is affection between them despite their constant bickering. Helen manages to flee with the well-to-do but hard-drinking Peter (Bradford Cover). Jo has her first romance with a black sailor, Jimmy (Ade Otukoya). Not surprisingly, he leaves her – and leaves her pregnant. Jo, who has little interest in becoming a mother, finds support from lonely gay art student Geoffrey (John Evans Reese).
Botchan has acted in more than 40 productions at the Pearl, and she’s wonderful as Helen. The actress brings out Helen’s fun-loving spirit as well as her sense of humor without glossing over the fact that she’s primarily interested in herself and has been a mostly terrible mother. Brockman is equally good, making us root for Jo despite her unlikable qualities. Cover, another Pearl regular, is just right as the loutish but engaging Peter. And Otukoya and Reese do excellent work in their intimate scenes opposite Brockman.
Pendleton deserves some of the credit for their fine performances. He also skillfully integrates music into the production. Music is an important element in the play. Like John Osborne’s The Entertainer, it recalls the waning Music Hall tradition in 1950s England. The Pearl’s terrific three-man band (Max Boiko, Phil Faconti and Walter Stinson) plays a mix of jazz and old standards like “Blue Moon.” They also do the Grammy-winning “Taste of Honey” theme song by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, written for the Broadway production. The actors break into song in the middle of scenes, displaying more enthusiasm than perfect pitch. That’s fine. Even Helen, who had dreams of being a singer, shouldn’t be a talented chanteuse.
As for Delaney, it’s remarkable that she wrote such a heartfelt play with such well-rounded characters speaking utterly believable dialogue when she was just 18. According to Pearl dramaturg Kate Farrington, Delaney had mixed feelings about the play because she never received as much acclaim for anything she wrote during the rest of her long career. She didn’t give the go-ahead for major revivals that were proposed for London and New York. This Off Broadway staging, extended through October, does justice to Delaney’s terrific first play.