IT WAS May 1958 when Shelagh Delaney’s debut play A Taste Of Honey first burst upon the world.
A Taste Of Honey
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow
Harold Macmillan was prime minister, Dwight Eisenhower was president; and although many people – in Macmillan’s unforgotten phrase – had “never had it so good”, post-war affluence had yet to reach many parts of Britain’s grubby, bomb-damaged industrial cities.
As for the young people – well, they were in the grip of what the wartime generation hoped was just a phase, but which turned out to be something more like a revolution, driven by a transatlantic wave of rock’n’roll music that shut the older generation out, and almost literally drove some of them mad. On that explosive first night at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Royal, Stratford East, Shelagh Delaney was just 19 years old and straight out of Salford, a full-throated voice of that new generation, in all its anger, frustration and hope.
So it’s more than fascinating, 55 years on, to see Delaney’s first and greatest play take the stage at the Royal Lyceum, in a time when young people’s anger against the status quo is often just as intense, but generally far more fearful and subdued. For all its historic setting, the famous story of 15-year-old Jo – more or less abandoned by her good-time-girl single mum Helen, and tempted into a weekend of love with her black sailor boyfriend that leaves her pregnant and alone – is still full of contemporary resonances.
If anything, the play’s central tension between a single parent mum, and a daughter who bitterly resents the men in her mother’s life, is even more common than it was half a century ago; as is the still-familiar reaction that leads Jo into early sex and unwanted pregnancy. And even the big social battles in the play’s hinterland – the profound racism that her child will face, the savage homophobic prejudice that first brings Jo’s gay flatmate Geoffrey into her life, and then drives him out again – have not moved on so far that we cannot recognise the bigotry against which Jo instinctively rages.
Tony Cownie’s big, heartfelt revival at the Royal Lyceum plays faithfully to these strengths in the play, working outward from the superbly theatrical and energetic central power struggle between Rebecca Ryan’s Jo, and Lucy Black’s Helen.
Both Ryan – best known as young Debbie in Channel 4’s Shameless – and Black, whose credits include EastEnders and Holby City, find the kind of fast-talking, incisive working-class voice that seems to come straight from the hard world of back-to-back streets and noisy factory-floors, and has no trouble commanding attention in a mere theatre; there’s a terrific revolving set by Janet Bird, and a fine series of supporting performances from Charlie Ryan as Geoffrey, Adrian Decosta as boyfriend Jim, and Keith Fleming as Helen’s sleazy fancy-man, Peter.
And if the whole show sometimes seems more like a homage than a complete reinterpretation – well, this play can take it, as it demonstrates a narrative grip, a power of language, and a deep sense of drama that still shows the way, to generations of new writers with more pretension, but far less courage and passion.
If complete reinterpretation is what you seek, though, then it’s hard to imagine a more thrilling companion piece to the Lyceum production than Stewart Laing’s mind-blowing new staging of Jean Genet’s The Maids, which opens the spring season at the Citizens’ Theatre. First seen in Paris in 1947, The Maids was born of the same impulse of post-war disgust and rebellion that drives Delaney’s work. Genet had been a thief and jailbird before his writing made him famous, and remained a passionate outsider all his life, although the style of his work belongs firmly to the European avant-garde, rather than to popular culture; in The Maids – which he insisted should be performed by three young male actors – he produces a brutal, stylised analysis of the relationship between a mistress and her two servants, in a series of ferocious role-playing meditations on class, sex, power, violence, and the dark energy of despair.
At the Citizens’, Laing obeys the instruction about the three young actors, casting Samuel Keefe, Ross Mann and Scott Reid – all of them fresh from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – as the mistress and her maids. For the rest, though, he blows the structure of the evening sky-high, in a two-hour performance that is part rock gig, part rehearsed reading, part film-show, featuring some fascinating BBC footage of Genet himself, deconstructing and challenging the idea of the television interview; and that even dissolves, at one point, into a question-and-answer session, as Laing appears before the curtain to respond to challenges from the audience.
The acting is raw, patchy, sometimes out of its depth, but always compelling; the music ranges from Metallica through David Bowie to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, much of it played with a hard, solemn energy by the cast, who transform themselves between scenes into a heavily amplified guitar band.
And in the end, the brilliant Laing makes two points with impressive force. First, that the rage, violence and nihilism of Genet’s work prefigured some of the most powerful movements in recent popular culture and music, including artists like Bowie and Cobain, and the obsession with self-reinvention through performance that now expresses itself through countless millions of images and videos posted on the internet. And secondly, that if you are going to honour Genet’s passion for deconstruction – for challenging the conventional assumptions behind any relationship, event or art-form – then you might as well go the whole hog; and offer audiences an evening that will take their ideas about theatre and performance, and turn them inside-out and upside-down, perhaps for ever.
• A Taste of Honey is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 9 February; The Maids is at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 2 February.