No one involved in the debut production of A Taste of Honey – which premiered at the avant-garde Theatre Workshop in London’s Stratford East in May 1958 – had any idea how the play would be received. But Gerry Raffles, the theatre manager, was cautious, taking pains to warn the leads “to be ready to run” from the stage if the audience turned nasty during the curtain call.
“I’m quite unqualified for anything like this,” wrote its author, Shelagh Delaney (who’d adopted what she took to be the Irish spelling of her first name in an attempt to sound more striking) when she sent her playscript to Joan Littlewood, director of the Theatre Workshop, only two months earlier. Delaney might not have had the then-expected qualifications for a playwright, but as the 19-year-old daughter of a Salford bus driver, she couldn’t have been better placed to write this particular play.
A Taste of Honey tells the story of two working-class women and their tumultuous relationship: Helen, a single mother, and her teenage daughter, Jo. The older woman is a “good time girl,” who likes drinking, dancing and sex. Her daughter, meanwhile, is a romantic. But when Jo falls pregnant following a brief affair with a Black sailor who doesn’t stick around, she has to abandon her dreams and face reality, which means trying to make a home for herself and her baby with her friend Geof, a gay art student.
This story of “slums, sexual politics and race relations,” writes Selina Todd in Tastes of Honey: The Making of Shelagh Delaney and a Cultural Revolution, “caught Britain on the cusp of change.” There was no need for the cast to flee the stage. Though the audience were shocked, they loved it, as did the critics, who heaped praise on this new enfant terrible of British theatre. “This is not so much dramaturgy as anthropology, demonstrated by a genuine cannibal,” wrote Alan Brien in the Spectator. Meanwhile, the Observer’s Kenneth Tynan described Delaney as “a portent”.
A Taste of Honey broke countless taboos. Not just in terms of its frank portrayal of issues of sexuality and race, but in the way Delaney positioned the lives of working-class women – and, with them, their worlds of domesticity, sex and motherhood – front and centre. She was, according to Todd, “the first post-war playwright to suggest that these women had minds and desires of their own.” Delaney was up there with the so-called Angry Young Men writers of the era – John Osborne, John Braine and Alan Sillitoe, to name just three – showing that there was more to working-class life than the one-dimensional, cheerful, stoical stock characters which post-war theatre and film-goers were used to.
A Taste of Honey didn’t only set the theatrical world on fire, though. As Celia Brayfield writes in Rebel Writers: The Accidental Feminists, Delaney’s play “redefined women’s writing in Britain”. It kickstarted an entire generation of the boldest women’s writing the country had seen at that point – think of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (1960), Lynne Reid Banks The L-Shaped Room (1960) and Nell Dunn’s Poor Cow (1967).
But Delaney’s intrepid, authentic portrait of working-class life has also influenced a whole host of writers, actors and filmmakers since, from Morrissey, through Andrea Dunbar and Jeanette Winterson, to Maxine Peake. Without her, so many stories would have remained untold.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill