20/02/2014 13:18 GMT | Updated 21/04/2014 06:59 BST

'A Taste of Honey' as Sweet as Ever in National Theatre Revival


A Taste of Honey was one of the few plays I studied at school where my love for the piece wasn't ruined by lacklustre teaching. And in this passionate and dramatic revival at the National Theatre, all those ingredients that made the play so revolutionary when it debuted remain.

Written when she was only 19, Shelagh Delaney's masterpiece was almost incendiary when it was first performed in 1958. None of the other "kitchen sink" dramas of that time were written by women, and none of the others brought the margins of society - a single mother in poverty, a pregnant teenager, black sailors and young gay men - front and centre.

But beyond the sensationalist headlines of the time (the Daily Mail wrote Delaney off as an "angry young woman" - which they would probably still do today) there is a truly wonderful story.

A Taste of Honey is about of two women - single mother Helen (Lesley Sharp) and her teenage daughter Jo (Kate O'Flynn). Their relationship is complex and unhealthy. Helen had Jo when she was very young, and the bitterness of her lost youth is practically tangible.

Trying to make up for lost time, Helen is a good-time girl looking for a rich man. But her constant absences and frequent abdication of parental responsibility has caused Jo to take on duties and obligations she should be too young to understand. And on top of all this, this family unit - single mothers controversial for the 1950s and still the bane of the right wing today - is incredibly poor.

The play starts with mother and daughter moving into an impoverished terrace flat in Salford, which by any standards today would be condemned. But rather than focusing on settling her daughter down at school or creating a home, Helen throws herself into a whirlwind romance with a wealthy but alcoholic younger man. Yet Jo is a young woman looking for love too and what she doesn't get from her mother, she finds in the arms of a young black sailor on shore leave.

Given the success of the 1961 film adaptation, there might have been a temptation to explore a variety of settings for this revival, such as the local pub and a shop. But Director Bijan Sheibani has shrewdly resisted that, keeping all the drama contained in one set - the squalid front room of this terraced flat.

Containing the action in this one, depressing location reinforces the prison mentality of the piece - two women trapped in an existence they both desperately long to flee, adding real weight to their dreams and flights of fancy, and poignancy when those dreams are inevitably shattered.

The acting is absolutely superb. Lesley Sharp completely inhabits the complex role of a mother in a deeply destructive battle between her dreams and her responsibilities. The supporting cast (Eric Kofi Abrefa, Harry Hepple and Dean Lennox Kelly) are also excellent. But it is Kate O'Flynn who shines as Jo, the girl too old for her age but too young for the responsibilities she finds put upon her.

Revolutionary in its time, it saddens me to write that I still felt I was watching a type and style of play, a setting, that is still rare in theatre. Two women, working class, the struggles of poverty, sexuality... It all haunts me because even today, 50 years later, we still don't see enough of these plays. Theatre remains dominated by the upper and middle class, and by men.

Unlike other "kitchen-sink dramas" (personally, I've always considered A Taste of Honey to be more than that) this has not dated, reflecting the multi-layered brilliance of the writing. Watching it now, it comes across as a courageous and brutally honest story about survival, the reality of life when the dreams have gone.

I left more in awe of Shelagh Delaney's writing than ever before. As a woman I found this piece, written in the 1950s by a 19 year old woman, more resonant than any of the feminist plays that have opened this year (Rapture Blister Burn, Blurred Lines, The Mistress Contract). Helen and Jo are real, multi-dimensional women, conflicted, both victims and victors. But ultimately survivors.

National Theatre, London

To May 11, 2014