They called them the “angry young men,” but Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey is filled with enough class rage to argue for an amendment to the term. Originally produced in 1958, the play follows the down-and-outs Jo (Rebekah Brockman), a seventeen-year-old girl lurching toward womanhood, and her mother Helen (Rachel Botchan), who quickly abandons her daughter for a booze-soaked marriage with a younger man (Bradford Cover). Alone in their flat, Jo has a brief affair with a Black sailor (Ade Otukoya) and ends up pregnant and rooming with a gay art student, Geoffrey (John Evans Reese). A jazz trio quietly watches the action, sometimes from the side and sometimes in the center, lending the play an occasionally dreamy touch.
As in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, the relationships are alternately tender and abusive, the tone teetering between dark comedy and light tragedy. Though Jo and Geoff suggest the possibility of a stable and happy if unsexual marriage, there is no sense that the crimes of the mothers will be shed by the daughters. At one point, Helen tells Jo she never thinks about her when she is happy, while Jo, uneasy with the role she will soon be forced to play, refers to her child as “a little animal nibbling away at me,” something “cannibalistic” that will eat her alive. In this play, motherhood is destructive rather than generative.
The cast here is uneven, and in particular the British accents come and go as they please. Still, Ms. Brockman does a fine job articulating Jo’s curiosity, naïveté, and terror, and Mr. Cover—clenching his unlit cigar between his teeth like a pacifier—brings welcome levity to the proceedings.
In 1958, A Taste of Honey must have surely struck audiences as fearless, as it addresses with little fanfare the degenerative effects of poverty, sexism, homophobia, and racism. And while I appreciate Delaney’s refusal to stand on a soap box, the work has not aged especially well: nothing of what remains is particularly striking or moving. Director Austin Pendleton has certainly done an adequate job with the text; I’m just not sure the material has much to offer anymore.