Jodie Prenger is gearing up to take on another iconic role. From September she’ll be playing Helen in Shelagh Delaney’s explosive play, A Taste of Honey. The National Theatre tour will arrive in Belfast, playing at the Grand Opera House from 15th to 19th October.
Written when Delaney was just 19, and set in her native Salford, A Taste of Honey explores life for Helen and her daughter Jo as they move between tenements and struggle to not only survive, but thrive, in a harsh world where poverty is never far away.
‘A dear friend of mine, Bobby Delaney – ironically, no relation – gave it to me to read. And I absolutely fell in love with it.’ Jodie describes what attracted her to the role, ‘It was so real and so honest and tender. It was the mother and daughter relationship that got me ‘right there’. My nan and that side of my family were from Manchester. It was just like hearing my nan’s voice. The feistiness and the fight that my nan had; I saw a lot of her in Helen.
Delaney sent the script, her first, written in a frenzy after her first live theatre experience just two weeks before when a friend took her to the Opera House in Manchester, to Joan Littlewood, who was running the Theatre Workshop at the time. ‘I watched this great documentary on Shelagh Delaney, where they followed her on a tour around Salford and the markets of Salford, and where she met real characters. These are the real people and real relationships you see in the play. It was taboo-breaking sixty years ago, but it’s still poignant today,’ Jodie explains.
A Taste of Honey was first produced at Theatre Royal Stratford East in London, before transferring to the West End. The play experienced phenomenal success, with a Broadway run that featured Joan Plowright and Angela Lansbury. Many people remember Tony Richardson’s 1961 BAFTA winning film adaptation with Rita Tushingham as Jo.
The play was produced at the National Theatre in 2014, directed by Bijan Sheibani whose recent hits include Barber Shop Chronicles, and designed by Olivier Award-winning designer Hildegard Bechtler. The pair reunite for this tour, reconceiving their critically acclaimed production. ‘What Bijan and Hildegard are set on is rooting the play in the 1950’s but making sure it is relevant and poignant for today. There’s a live band who’ll play music on stage, there’ll be songs. That’ll really get that rhythm of the period and the vitality of these characters across.’
Of the divisive Helen, who abandons her teenage daughter after meeting Peter, a car salesman, Jodie is protective; ‘I don’t think she’s a monster. I just think she’s real. The only way to play a character like Helen is to be real. With a show like this you have to play the truth. She’s a character of circumstance.’ She’s also extremely funny. Throughout the play Helen and her daughter trade devastating quips and insults; ‘The wit comes through in the writing. That’s why this play is still so popular today. People want that darkness, but they also want the wit and the humour. I just played Beverly in Abigail’s Party on tour. That was very much dark comedy mixed with humour; I relish the challenge of balancing the two.’
The play was revolutionary at the time of its premiere in 1958, putting women centre stage and depicting previously marginalised characters, such as black sailor Jimmy and gay art student Geoff. ‘We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go. I read somewhere that the original cast were warned they might have to evacuate the theatre if the audience reacted negatively. That wouldn’t happen today’ Jodie says. ‘Shelagh Delaney has written these characters without any prejudice. It’s great to keep the messages and themes of the play alive. These are important subjects which still need to be explored.’
‘You always feel pressure,’ Jodie says when asked about playing an iconic character previously portrayed by the likes of Dora Bryan, Angela Lansbury and Lesley Sharp. She smiles, ‘But then you roll your sleeves up – that’s my nan’s ethic; ‘get stuck in’. That’s what gives you the confidence to just go for it and create your own character. It does develop in rehearsals, and changes depending on the cast you work with. This Helen will be different.’
The play was first performed 61 years ago and Jodie feels it stands the test of time: ‘The northern writing, there’s a real depth to it. There’s a warmth about it. I’ve been doing a lot of research and have some pictures depicting how people lived in Salford back then. They had the humour to get them through. That’s what comes across so clearly in this play, even today.’ And of the negative depiction by some quarters of Delaney as an angry young woman, Jodie disagrees; ‘Joan Littlewood unleashed a strong female voice on the world, which around the time was largely unheard of. It was very brave. I was brought up by strong women – there’s nothing better!’