Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey has lashings of sex, race, gayness and a tug of love. It sounds very 1990s, but was first put on in 1958. And although textbooks claim that the revolution in British postwar drama was led by John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956), revisionist academics now argue that this Angry Young Man was an old reactionary and that Delaney's play was more truly radical. First produced by Joan Littlewood, and filmed in 1962, A Taste of Honey is the bitter-sweet story of Jo, a Salford lass who falls for a black sailor, gets pregnant, quarrels with her mother Helen, and moves in with Geoff, a young homosexual.
Delaney was 19 when she wrote the play - and its themes of teenage pregnancy, sexuality and racism haven't dated. In the Salisbury Playhouse production, "the characters never behave as victims - they constantly fight against their circumstances", says director Joanna Read. "Jo doesn't see herself as a victim. Whenever she's abandoned, she doesn't lament, but tries to move on." Jo has a "tendency to mythologise things, and some parts of the play might be taking place in her imagination". In her relationship with Jimmie, the black sailor, "it feels as if she's always retreating into fantasy - only to find herself back in the harsh reality of her grotty bedsit".
The play is about "the relationship between mother and daughter" and it deals with "taboos - homosexuality and racism - in a particularly 1950s way", says Read. "Jo is more ignorant of these issues than a teenger would be today." Both Helen and Jo "try to avoid reality - Jo ignores the fact that she's pregnant for seven months - and both depend on other people to help them". For Read, the characters are defined "not so much by class as by education". Because Helen keeps moving, "Jo's education has been disrupted and she can't fit into schoo". She reads a lot and draws, "and has lots of creative ambition", but little formal education.
At Watford, director Richard Beecham sees A Taste of Honey as "a dream play, in which a young woman dreams of a better life". His version is set in a dingy room with gauze walls which allow it "to dissolve into various dreamscapes". The motif that "echoes throughout is the sound of children playing and the nursery rhyme, 'Pippin Hill', that concludes the play". These are the "ghostly sounds of the childhood that Jo never had".
For Beecham, "the heart of the play is timeless. It's about people's hopes and fears, their longings for a better life". It's also a "rites of passage play", a girl's journey into womanhood. At the same time, its social issues remain relevant. He quotes a newspaper report about the large numbers of children being taken into care. Despite that, the play's characters convey an essential optimism: "Helen is clearly articulate, witty and quick-witted, and so is Jo." At one point, "Jo taunts Geoff with the fact that he's rich enough to be able to go to art school - an opportunity she doesn't have".
Aleks Sierz Salisbury from November 8 to 25 (box office: 01722 320 333); Watford until November 25 (box office: 01923 225 671)