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Spotlight on: Shelagh Delaney

Shelagh Delaney (1939 – 2011)

With A Taste of Honey enjoying a revival on the National’s Lyttlelton stage it seems a timely point to revisit one of my earlier posts on this blog, which was written in response to the sad death of Shelagh Delaney at the age of 73. One of the first things to note on coming back to this review is the realisation that even pinning down her date of birth is not clear. The Guardian went with 1939 in their obituary, which fits with the generally held Shelagh-Delaney-007idea that Shelagh was 19 when A Taste of Honey exploded into view but according to the New York Times, and apparently confirmed by her daughter as such, it was actually 1940. Either way a few months here or there does little to change the most remarkable fact about her; that seemingly out of nowhere she produced a play that was gloriously alive, that, in the words of Keith Tynan ‘smelt of living’.

Originally intended as a novel, it was watching late-era Rattigan – enjoying a current renaissance but at the time about to be engulfed by the new generation and held up as an example, somewhat simplistically and most unfairly, alongside Noel Coward as all that was wrong with British Theatre – that sparked Delagny into turning it into a play and sending it down to Joan Littlewood at the hugely influential Theatre Royal in Stratford.

Rough around the edges and raw in the middle, A Taste of Honey, was notable for offering not just a working-class but also a defiantly female perspective. At a time when the ‘Angry Young Men’ of British Theatre were setting their mark at the Royal Court; here was a play that shared their world but offered a vibrantly different viewpoint on post-war Britain.

Written in 1958 and considering the social mores of the time, it is almost inconceivable to think that A Taste of Honey contained sexual promiscuity, teenage pregnancy, interracial relationships and homosexuality. A critical hit and a counterpoint to the masculinity of Osborne, Arden and Pinter, A Taste of Honey secured Delaney’s reputation as a crucial figure in the development of female playwrights.

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Shelagh Delaney (1940 – 2011)

As has been widely reported, Sunday saw the sad death of Shelagh Delaney. Delaney exploded onto the scene at just nineteen years old when she sent her first attempt at a play, A Taste of Honey, to Joan Littlewood at the hugely influential Theatre Royal in Stratford.

Rough around the edges and raw in the middle, A Taste of Honey, was notable for offering not just a working-class but also a defiantly female perspective. At a time when the ‘Angry Young Men’ of British Theatre were setting their mark at the Royal Court; here was a play that shared their world but offered a vibrantly different viewpoint on post-war Britain.

Written in 1958 and considering the social mores of the time, it is almost inconceivable to think that A Taste of Honey contained sexual promiscuity, teenage pregnancy, interracial relationships and homosexuality. A critical hit and a counterpoint to the masculinity of Osborne, Arden and Pinter, A Taste of Honey secured Delaney’s reputation as a crucial figure in the development of female playwrights.

Below is a scene from the classic 1961 British adaptation (a welcome time when adapting a stage play wasn’t the same as clinically removing its very soul)

More on Shelagh Delaney by Michael Billington can be read here