'A Taste of Honey' review or 'I thought I had a sweet tooth!'

A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney
Lyttleton Theatre, 18 February 2014
Written for Blouin Artinfo 

When 19 year old Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey in the 1950s, it caused huge ripples – nay waves - throughout the theatre industry. Legendary theatre-maker Joan Littlewood snapped up the script and promptly produced it at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Now the National Theatre is reviving the play with two of Britain’s finest actors, Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn. I was expecting fireworks; what I got was two sparkling performances and one fairly dull production.
When it was first produced, A Taste of Honey was considered fairly shocking. Delaney’s play is set in Salford (North England) and explores inter-racial relationships, homosexuality, domestic abuse and teenage pregnancy. Such issues might have shocked in 1959 but they make much less impact today. Without this shock-effect, the play feels low-key and rudderless. It lacks oomph.
Everything – the dialogue, plot-twists and emotional confrontations – feels too small for the sprawling Lyttelton stage. Hildegard Bechtler’s set consists of an open-faced and distinctly dingy living room, all set atop a rotating stage. Gas-works and tall bleak buildings loom on the horizon. The actors look tiny against this imposing set and struggle to make an impact – and that’s saying something, considering the abundant talent on stage.
Director Bijan Sheibani seems determined to make his show feel as dated as possible. Whining sitcom-esque music (composed by Paul Englishby) plays in between the scenes and quickly grows tired. The actors perform dance sequences throughout most of the scene changes, which feel weirdly out of place and slow down an already drawn-out production.
Were it not for two stellar performances, this would’ve been a grim night. But any show with Sharp and O’Flynn is going to contain some dazzlingly honest and revealing moments. Sharp proves herself to be a brilliant comedienne. She plays the neglectful mother, Helen, as sort of retired performer, constantly commenting on her life and interacting with the audience; ‘Look how she runs me ragged!’ This rapport with the audience allows us to grow close to Helen, despite her vicious selfish streak.
O’Flynn is a bundle of contradictions as the childish grown-up daughter, Josephine. She is mature beyond her years yet also throws toddler-ish tantrums. She guards the door like a jealous dog, desperate for her mother and lovers not to walk through and leave. Every time Josephine utters her catch phrase – ‘I don’t care’ – her whole body judders in quiet contradiction.  
Two brilliant observed characters, then, given life and depth by Sharp and O’Flynn. But this ploddy production obstinantly refuses to spark into life. A stodgy show – and not nearly as tasty as I was expecting.