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Review: A Taste of Honey at the Epstein Theatre ****

When the precociously talented teenage playwright Shelagh Delaney penned A Taste of Honey in 1958 it was to highlight the kind of gritty issues of the time that weren’t being addressed elsewhere.

That was 60 years ago, when Delaney’s bald and theatrically revolutionary portrayal of class, race and sexual preferences gave audiences a powerful jolt.

In the intervening decades the envelope has been pushed so far that it’s hard to feel truly shocked by anything anymore.

Although interestingly, the characters’ casual homophobia and latent racism, which wouldn't have raised many eyebrows in the late 50s, are more uncomfortable and unacceptable to modern day audiences than the general combative behaviour and dysfunctional relationships that could have come straight from an episode of EastEnders or Big Brother.

This current anniversary production at the Epstein, directed by Daniel Taylor, stays faithful to Delaney’s original.

Set in the claustrophobic confines of a Salford slum tenement (with views of a cemetery, gas works and slaughterhouse) A Taste of Honey is a densely wordy marathon for the five-strong cast, particularly Sophie Coward as the truculent teenage Jo, adrift in a world where affection is in short supply.

Sophie Coward as Jo. Above: Coward and Sharon Byatt as Helen. Photos David Munn

Coward successfully inhabits the skin of the 17-year-old who is both childlike and old beyond her years, forced to fend for herself while her feckless, free-spirited mother Helen (Sharon Byatt in fine form as a sort of Mancunian Joan Crawford and in a wig straight out of a Victoria Wood sketch) carries on with a succession of fancy men, including her latest sleazy squeeze - the unappealing Peter (Chris Pybus), a domineering spiv in an eye patch.

For Jo, a moment of happiness (that taste of honey) with her sailor beau Jimmy (Jason Lamar Ricketts) has far-reaching ramifications. But it’s her sensitive friend Geof (a restrained performance from James Templeton) who proves the only one man enough to stand by her.

The action unfolds on Sean Gibbons’ simple but effective one-room set, backed by a brick façade with echoes of Blood Brothers' back streets, and which hides a live band which offers laid back lounge classics before and musical accompaniment during the show.

The production comes in at 70 minutes each way, and while director Taylor keeps the action – and keenly combative dialogue - moving nicely along in the first half, the second feels about 10-15 minutes too long.

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