Still drawing attention at forty

7th November 1997 at 00:00
A TASTE OF HONEY. Nuffield Theatre, Southampton

Almost 40 years after its premi re, Shelagh Delaney's picture of a poor adolescent Salford girl continues to draw interest.

But one question for director Daniel Buckroyd was whether to set it in 1997 to pull its qualities into closer proximity to a young audience. "We've left it in 1958, throwing the prejudices into starker focus," he said.

Externals matter: "We now have greater emphasis as a society on the demonstrable symbols of affluence. Especially younger people who wear the badges, the designer labels of affluence in environments like schools and colleges."

Yet Buckroyd clearly puts the play's continuing presence on exam syllabuses down to the character development, especially of the women.

"It's about Jo and Helen's journey. The play starts and ends with the mother and daughter. Helen's (the mother, played by Julia righton) emotional journey is fully fleshed out in the writing. The males, especially Peter and Jimmy, are not afforded the same emotional depths." Our broad view of the play is of behavioural patterns repeated in succeeding generations. We can project Helen's life back at least to Jo's (Verity Hewlett) birth. The play's action is her "window of opportunity to break out of a cycle of life". As it is for Jo, though she will have more chances. Will she take them, if it means leaving Helen?

"The question constantly arising for the two actresses is: What do I want of this moment? For Jo this always arises out of her responses to Helen. She recognises her mother's tyranny yet capitulates to it within a split-second, always wanting to free herself from it, yet immerse herself in it."

Paradoxically, Buckroyd sees Jo and Helen's mutual need and rejection, without the clear charting of motivation a more experienced writer might have provided, as a strength. "It's a different sort of dramatic maturity. It reads as a very natural reflection on the truth of their relationship."

Will her drawings be an outlet for Jo? Helen and Geoff offer different views. "She has enthusiasm and promise," suggests Buckroyd. Under other circumstances, "she'd probably be heading for a B in A-level art. Helen's response is one of her very few genuine moments. She's caught off guard and is touched at her daughter's talent but misses the significance that Jo's kept her work secret - it's a creative outlet she doesn't want to expose to games-playing with Helen."

Yet Geoff uses it "as a games-playing tool. He's been momentarily threatened by Jo questioning his sexuality but she wants him to stay, so, smarting from her attack he reasserts his notion of himself as superior by criticising her work."

Southampton Nuffield Theatre November 11-22. Tickets: 01703 671771

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