You can never fully know a play. One of the shocking productions of 2019 was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was revived by Nichols Hytner at his Bridge Theatre with such invention it was like seeing Shakespeare’s most revived play for the first time.
Granted, Shelagh Delaney’s groundbreaking play of 1958 is not seen as often as Shakespeare’s crowdpleaser. But set in a grubby tenement overlooking a slaughterhouse and canal in the north of England, its reputation is of landmark “kitchen sink” social realism is well known. So is the story of 19-year-old Delaney sending the script to the visionary director Joan Littlewood, who immediately saw its merits. So anyone who knows this history can be pretty sure of what they are about to receive. But they would be wrong.
In Bijan Sheibani’s National Theatre production, first seen in 2014 and now returning to London after a UK tour, it is not the merits of Delaney’s writing that first grabs the audience, but the languorous jazz played by an onstage trio serenading them to their seats. The play has been musicalised to within an inch of becoming a musical.
Jodie Prenger’s Helen, 40-year-old former pub singer, sings her way into the play as she and her daughter Jo (Gemma Dobson) size up their new home. There’s an immediate tension between the two from the way they look. The plainness of Dobson’s Jo can only be a deliberate rebuke to her mother’s brassy, coiffured allure. And the tension is present too in the way they speak to each other, with barely an exchange passing between them that is not a barbed observation, much of it from Jo about her mother’s drinking.
It could all so easily have been an evening that is as depressing as it is grim. But Delaney’s dialogue is brimful of wit and humanity, and even when this mesmerising double act are taking chunks out of each other, there is always love in the room, even if it is heavily disguised.
The plot’s timeline of several months is marked by Helen moving out to live with wide-boy Peter (Tom Varey) and Jo’s tryst with a black navy man Jimmie (Durone Stokes), by whom she becomes pregnant. With Helen gone, the bedsit becomes a refuge for Geof (Stuart Thompson), whose sexuality is established by him singing a beautiful rendition of "Mad About the Boy."
In just a single play, Delaney breaks just about every taboo of her time by putting them centre stage, from single parenthood to homosexuality, and sex that is not only outside marriage but interracial too. In this way the teenage author achieved her objective of creating an antidote to the middle-class drawing-room drama that defined post-war British theatre.
What enriches this piece today is that Sheibani decides against searching for the false virtue of modern relevance. It is enough to be in the company of these people and to listen to their music, which courses through Delany’s play like wine through veins.