Melissa Blease reviews The National Theatre’s A Taste of Honey starring Jodie Prenger, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 2 November

Over the past couple of years, revivals of all manner of dramas from Abigail’s Party to The Winslow Boy by way of Equus, Glengarry Glen Ross, Educating Rita, Death of a Salesman and My Beautiful Launderette (to name but a few) have been dusted down, shaken up and remixed for contemporary audiences to varying degrees of success and acclaim. But the most successful revisits are those that don’t merely turn the spotlight on the past but question where we are today. 

While The National Theatre’s revamp of Shelagh Delaney’s classic 1958 drama A Taste of Honey – visiting Bath prior to a West End stint – brings era-specific live music to the vintage mix, it gives the tale a richly evocative set to play out against (a shabby Salford flat). It also pays respectful homage to the sharp, witty, fast-paced dialogue, but the key objectives of a drama focusing on themes involving poverty, social injustice, British class structure, sexuality, race, identity, bad parenting and troubled teenagers somehow gets slightly lost along the way.

As selfish single mum Helen, Jodie Prenger is duly devilish, deliciously droll and thoroughly devoid of maternal instinct. An over-tendency, however, to blend the high camp priestess qualities of Coronation Street‘s Elsie Tanner with Viv “spend, spend, spend” Nicholson’s brazen audaciousness brings too much diva and not enough despondency to what is, overall, a desperately tragic character. Similarly, Helen’s repeatedly abandoned, perpetually disparaged 17-year-old daughter Jo (Gemma Dobson) shows few signs of the kind of anguish, anger or even angst one would expect from a young woman who’s mother doesn’t give a toss about her and whose first and only boyfriend – a young sailor – has taken to the seas, leaving her pregnant and alone.

Meanwhile, Helen’s latest fling Peter (Tom Varey) brings little more than standard corny ‘cockney geezer’ attributes to the drama before whisking Helen off to marry him, so it’s down to Jo’s best friend Geoff to pick up the pieces in more ways than one – and Stuart Thompson does an admirable job of bringing texture, context and authentic character to a production that, until Geoff skips out of the shadows, is in dire need of all three attributes. We’re slightly stuck in a kind of highly stylised wilderness somewhere between hard-hitting contemporary drama and soft-focus period piece until Geoff/Stuart revises the route and leads us out of soap opera territory.

Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey when she was just 19-years-old. Her aim was to revitalise British theatre and address social issues that she felt were not being acknowledged or represented. It’s a sad indictment on where we’re at right now that those issues still deserve relevant status today… but sadder still that a seminal accomplishment in the canon of classic Great British Theatre has, in this instance, been over-sweetened just a little bit too much.

Main image: David O’Brien with Jodie Prenger as Helen in A Taste of Honey. Credit: Marc Brenner