Thursday, June 19, 2008

Shelagh Take a Bow

As a devoted disciple of Morrissey, I have pored over album covers, lyrics, bits of biographical information about the man and his influences for years, so in the same way that someone who has always been a fan of a band but has never seen them tour and hardly expected them to would go mad when they hear that such a near-mythical group is going on the road, I jumped for joy last year when I saw the press release from the Shattered Globe Theatre, which said the group was putting on Shelagh Delaney's "A Taste of Honey" this spring. Last weekend my Stephen scored a pair of tickets at a nice price, and we made our way to the Victory Gardens Theatre, which is in the middle of the post-collegiate beer-soaked alley that is Lincoln Avenue just south of Halsted Street, near DePaul University, to see it before I had to go to work. 

Delaney started writing "Honey" in the late 1950s, when she was just 17. It's the story of a Manchester teen, Jo, and her mother, Helen, and the men who come into their lives. Helen likes to drink and she likes her men. Jo never knew her father, who was just a one-night (or afternoon) stand for Helen. They move around a lot, sometimes to get away from the men Helen gets involved with. The play takes place in the latest dank, dreary, smelly and noisy flat they've moved into. The flat is filled with tension and anger and shouting and not much happiness, whether the action involves Jo and Helen, Helen and her latest man friend, Jo and her boyfriend (who becomes the father of her child and who we never see after the night she becomes pregnant), Jo and her gay friend Geoffrey (who stays with Jo after her mother abandons her even though Jo is riding an emotional roller coaster), Helen and Geoffrey or the whole lot of them together at once.

But that's not to say it's an entirely joyless play. Delaney's writing (when seen on stage, since I had already read the play long ago) struck me as a tough, sharp and rapid-fire sort of Oscar Wilde. The banter between Jo and Helen is sometimes like something between two characters out of "His Girl Friday," so fast and funny it sometimes is. The two women, Helen Sadler as Jo and Linda Reiter as her mum, are amazing, especially when they are together on stage. Sadler is from England, but honestly, watching the two of them together, I could not tell which of the two was the English one, since their accents were both spot-on, as was their handling of the material.     

It's not difficult to see why a young Stephen Patrick Morrissey, growing up in Manchester, would have liked this play. He played tribute to the writer by making Shelagh Delaney a 'cover star' on some Smiths album and single covers, and some dialogue from the play has found its way into his music (Like when the sailor tells Jo, "I dreamt about you last night. Fell out of bed twice," or when Geoffrey says, "The dream is gone but the baby's still real.")

The play tackles head-on what life must have been like for a lot of people (or at least those around Delaney) in Manchester or any industrial city in the mid-20th century. It's honest, true, sometimes sad, sometimes funny. It was written at a time when such stories were just not put on the stage, when people who went to the theatre instead saw ladies and gentlemen trading witty barbs around a drawing room, and everything ended happily, more or less. There is no happy ending in "Honey." There's hardly even an "ending." Not every loose end is tied up, but hey, that's life, and its for the audience to draw their own conclusions about how things might have evolved for Jo, Helen, Jo's baby and the others. "A Taste of Honey" is scheduled to close the first week of July. Go see it.

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