The Pearl Theatre
555 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 30, $59-$79
The Pearl Theatre revival of Shelagh Delaney’s first play, A Taste of Honey, a British breakthrough written when she was eighteen, is a thoroughly engaging, bittersweet coming-of-age tale about a working-class mother and her peculiar daughter in dank, depressing postwar Britain — late-1950s Manchester, to be precise. Single mom Helen (Rachel Botchan) and her teenage daughter, Jo (Rebekah Brockman), are on the move again, settling into their new flat in a factory town. It’s a dreary, bleak apartment with a bathroom down the hall and a fine view of the gasworks. The two constantly bicker over just about everything, from money to men, furniture to booze. At one point Jo, who calls her mother “Helen,” notes, “You should prepare my meals like a proper mother,” to which Helen responds, “Have I ever laid claim to being a proper mother?” When one of Helen’s many male friends, Peter (Bradford Cover), a one-eyed playboy, starts talking marriage, Jo quickly falls for Jimmy (Ade Otukoya), a black male nurse and sailor who is about to ship out. In the second act, Jo finds herself in trouble and turns to the effeminate Geoffrey (John Evans Reese), creating a strange simulacrum of family after her mother has taken off with Peter. Through it all, the trio of trumpeter Max Boiko, guitarist Phil Faconti, and bassist Walter Stinson plays jazz and music-hall numbers, wandering around the set and even sitting on the couch with the actors, each acknowledging the others’ presence. Helen and Jo are also both aware of the audience, addressing them directly several times, trying to get the crowd on their side. “She’d lose her head if it was loose,” Jo says early on, while Helen asks, “Wouldn’t she get on your nerves?”
A Taste of Honey has quite a history. It debuted in London in 1958, where it caused a stir as a reaction to the Angry Young Men movement led by John Osborne and Kingsley Amis. (“I don’t like a too-knowledgeable woman,” Osborne said at the time. “I feel it is against her sex.”) The show moved to Broadway two years later, with Angela Lansbury as Helen, Joan Plowright as Jo, Nigel Davenport as Peter, Billy Dee Williams as Jimmy, and Andrew Ray as Geoffrey; a 1981 Great White Way revival featured Valerie French as Helen and Amanda Plummer as Jo. The story was also made into a 1961 movie by Tony Richardson, written by Delaney and starring Rita Tushingham in her first film. (The famous title song was written for the movie and is played at the start of this revival; Williams recorded his own take for a 1961 album.) The faithful Pearl version is directed by Austin Pendleton, whose fine A Day by the Sea has been extended at the Mint. Harry Feiner’s cluttered set captures the feel of a dingy working-class flat, while the large background charcoal drawing of the company town is a reminder of what might be Jo’s only real skill. “I thought you said you weren’t good at anything,” Helen says after finding Jo’s sketchbook. Jo answers, “It’s only a drawing.” Helen adds, “I didn’t realize I had such a talented daughter,” to which Jo boasts, “I’m not just talented, I’m geniused.” Pearl veteran Botchan and Brockman are naturals as Helen and Jo, fighting the way only mothers and daughters can; it’s a thrill watching them go for each other’s throats even as a little care and love trickle through.
There’s a timeless quality about Delaney’s writing that keeps A Taste of Honey fresh and poignantly funny, dealing with such issues as the economy, race, homosexuality, and broken families, led by two strong female characters who speak their mind. Delaney, who was immortalized on the covers of the Smiths’ Louder than Bombs compilation and “Girlfriend in a Coma” single — in 1986, Smiths leader Morrissey told NME, “I’ve never made any secret of the fact that at least fifty percent of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney”; Morrissey also incorporated two lines from the play into the song “Reel around the Fountain” — went on to write several other plays and screenplays but never again achieved the critical success her debut work brought her; she passed away in 2011 at the age of seventy-two. But as the working class in America continues its own decline amid hard-fought struggles for economic equality for women, gay rights, increases in the minimum wage, an end to racism, and affordable housing, A Taste of Honey feels as relevant as ever.