I regularly contribute articles and reviews to newspapers and journals.
All my Guardian and Observer comment pieces on class, feminism and politics are listed here
In 2013 History Workshop Journal invited me to publish my reflection on E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class to mark the 50th anniversary of its publication. You can read my piece here.
TASTE OF HONEY
Here’s a short piece I wrote after Radio 3’s Nightwaves asked me to review A Taste of Honey in 2014. Shelagh Delaney and her seminal play appear in my latest book, The People: the rise and fall of the working class, 1910-2010
My new year’s resolution for 2014 was to see more theatre. By February 1 I recalled why I never realise this recurrent resolve: I am too disorganised to get tickets for the most popular productions, which presumably hoardes of super-organised and/or retired London-based theatregoers manage to snap up months before I know a play is to be performed.
So it was that I was delighted on 2 Feb to be asked by Radio 3 to review the National Theatre’s new production of A Taste of Honey, and even more pleased to realise this meant I could swank up to the press desk and demand my free ticket, before being personally escorted to my seat which was chosen so I could have easy access to an exit to get the car that Radio 3 was sending to ensure I’d get to the studio just 15 minutes after curtain up. Shallow, pretentious? Yes, je suis.
I am also, I remembered as the lights dimmed and the press mwah-mwah’d each other around me, completely intolerant of theatrical self-indulgence. I’ve walked out of more plays than I’ve watched all the way through, bored – and this one, I belatedly realised, was due to be 2 hours 45 minutes long. And I was being paid to watch it, which meant no sneaking out early. It could be a long night.
It wasn’t. It was a delight. Stunning, superb, and the most spine-tinglingly accurrate depiction of the 1950s I’ve ever seen or heard. How do I know? I suppose I don’t, I wasn’t there. But I remember my mum saying about Mike Leigh’s marvellous film Vera Drake that she thought it was good but ‘it wasn’t dirty enough’. She didn’t mean the sex, she meant the sideboard. Throughout A Taste of Honey its the little things that matter – for Jo, where her drawings can live, how to light the cooker, the significance of the Woolworths ring round her neck; for Helen, the uncomfortable chair, the newness of a cot, the way her hat sits. These things matter to them, and, thankfully, they mattered to the director Bijan Sheibani. So when Helen flits about her home,half-heartedly cleaning up, you’re acutely aware that she’s right to be half-hearted for it’s a fruitless task, in a broken-down rented flat ingrained with dirt and neglect. Just as you’re aware that her dancing, singing, her coquettish glances and her love of fashion aren’t pathetic but assertions of her right to a different sort of life. They are little things, and they matter, just as possessing a New Look dress, lipstick and a one-line put down mattered to so many working-class women in the 1950s as we know from Carolyn Steedman’s memoir Landscape for a Good Woman and Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood. They mattered because the 50s wasn’t a ‘never had it so good’ decade, but one of frustration for too many people: promised the good things in life, by Labour’s welfare state, and then by Conservative hyperbole about a consumer paradise, they were too often let down.
Its a play about mothers and daughters, and the director understands that, too. From the minute they saunter onto the stage, Jo (Kate O’Flynn) and Helen (Lesley Sharpe) are a superb double act, playing off each other just as Delaney must have intended. The men come and go, but they are the constant. They conflict and collide, the products of two very different generations. Helen dances and sings songs of her youth; her hair, her drawl, her romantic one liners are those of someone who grew up with the music hall and Hollywood of the thirties. Jo is a reader, an observer (of herself as well as others, as her drawings attest), more static and staccato in speech: a young woman of the fifties, of jazz, of bop, and of an education system that gave her the sense she should know herself (schools in the fifties were always getting children to draw themselves and write about their homes), and a load of literary of literary allusions, even if nowhere to take them, except in pithy one-liners aimed at Helen and later at her gay friend Geoff.
What unites Jo and Helen is a desire for a different sort of life to the one to which they’re meant to aspire. They don’t want respectable suburbia and marriage – and Delaney beautifully shows that the price is often too great in any case; suburbia is bought not only by a woman’s subjugation in matrimony, but by men who are sharp schemers, just the right side of the law: another reminder that the 50s wasn’t a place where many people could ‘get on’ in life very easily. They don’t want to be middle class. And they don’t want any sort of romanticised working-class community, either – the world outside stays resolutely outside, the only overt mention of it made by Helen when she castigates pregnant Jo for bringing on them the shame of their neighbours.
Their dream is of a different kind of society where they don’t necessarily have to leave each other – the people they love – to have a better, fuller, richer existence. But they do want a different life, one where the love and obligation that motherhood brings is not the only sort of fulfilment open to them. It is a life hinted at by the fashion, the one liners and the gloriously hopeful, jazzy, never intrusive musical score. In Delaney’s play, and in this production, Helen and Jo don’t have that better life – but they do have hope. Love, they suggest, is not enough: motherhood brings ties and obligation, and the realisation that in the end, you only have each other to rely on in a cruel uncaring world. But love is a start of working out what kind of life you might want, for in this Beckett-inspired play, the central message is that everything changes, even if you stay the same. People die and disappear, and new life comes, bringing with it new commitments but also new possibilities. In today’s world of insecurity, glamour as consolation for poverty and an uncertain future, that’s still a relevant message.
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