A slice of Northern realism

Kate O’Flynn talks to Shelley Marsden about Shelagh Delaney’s genre-defining play A Taste of Honey, naval-gazing at drama school and being brought back to the real world by Mike Leigh

“I’m trying not to focus on this as a ‘defining play’, says Kate O’Flynn when I ask her about starring as wayward daughter Jo in the National Theatre’s revival of A Taste of Honey, one of the great taboo-breaking plays of the 1950s.

“I want to just focus right in on the characters and the text, otherwise I’d probably get panicky – and start thinking about things that are unnecessary in order to get to grips with the role!”

Written in 1958 by Shelagh Delaney, a 19 year old from Salford with Irish roots, A Taste Of Honey was an explosive study of the vulnerabilities and strengths of the female spirit in a deprived, restless world.

When her mum Helen runs off with a car salesman, feisty teenager Jo takes up with a black sailor who promises to marry her, before he heads off for the seas, leaving her pregnant – and alone.  Gay art student Geoff moves in and takes on the role of surrogate parent until, misguidedly, he sends for Helen and their unconventional setup falls to pieces.

Bursting with energy and daring, this exhilarating and angry depiction of working-class life in post-war Salford is shot through with love and humour, and infused with the sounds of jazz. Directed by Bijan Sheibani, the National’s new production stars Kate O’Flynn as the daughter and Lesley Sharp as her mother, Helen (Scott and Bailey, Starlings).

The story goes that Delaney wrote her debut play because she was convinced she could do better than Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme, a play she’d seen at Manchester’s Opera House before it went to the West End. She penned it in ten days, partly because she felt the work showed “insensitivity in the way Rattigan portrayed homosexuals”.

A Taste of Honey, which raised issues – such as homosexuality – that would later become prime concerns of feminist writers, was accepted by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, whose Gerry Raffles said at the time: “Quite apart from its meaty content, we believe we have found a real dramatist”.

It opened at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1958 before transferring to the West End, and was later made into a feature film with Rita Tushingham, Dora Bryan and Murray Melvin in 1961.

Sally Hawkins and Kate O’Flynn play sisters in Happy Go Lucky

Delaney later said of her most enduring play: “I had strong ideas about what I wanted to see in the theatre. We used to object to plays where the factory workers came cap in hand and call the boss ‘sir’. Usually North Country people are shown as gormless, whereas in actual fact, they are very alive and cynical.”

“It’s a brilliant piece of writing”, says Kate, who soon after leaving drama school made headlines for her shattering portrayal of lesbian Martha Dobie in The Children’s Hour at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

“It would be a brilliant piece of writing anyway, but to think that Shelagh Delaney was just nineteen when she wrote it is… extraordinary. I like it when you can really feel the personality of the person that’s writing, and here you can really feel the fearlessness of her; the life-force; the fierce intelligence. Her play was basically the first time working-class people were put on stage and they weren’t just doffing their cap, they were really intelligent. There was a vitality to them. “

She’s finding Delaney’s very muscular language hard to get your tongue around. She has an advantage though, being from Bury (her father is from Clontarf, Dublin) so there is a shorthand of a sort there from the beginning.

Kate agrees: “I grew up in 90s Lancashire, which was of course very different to 50s Lancashire; people’s attitudes towards women have changed for one, but there is a similarity to the accent, and the humour I can sort of recognise.

“I don’t know if it gives me an edge… as long as any actor does their research they should be able to play a part, but my background helps. I know the landscape of the play, too. I have an understanding of that backdrop, of streets with red-brick houses.”

Kate and Lesley have been doing their research by watching a few classic social realism films, like Saturday Night, Sunday Morning; L-shaped Room, even the very first episodes of Corrie. The two actresses have been chatting about how A Taste of Honey must have inspired those early episodes on the Street.

“We’re just chatting nonsense, but maybe… Those films though, Albert Finney is just amazing. They give you a real sense of the time. I haven’t done a period piece for a good few years, I’ve always done new writing, so it’s interesting having to go back and get the period details; study the way people were with each other.”

For the full interview, see this week’s Irish World (issue 1 Feb 2014).

A Taste Of Honey is at Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London from 10 February, currently booking until 5 April. See www.nationaltheatre.org.uk for more.


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