by Elizabeth Stoddard
Playwright Shelagh Delaney was 18 when she wrote her first work, a play about a Manchester girl who falls for a black sailor and shares a flat with a young gay man. Tony Richardson’s production company then brought A Taste of Honey to the screen in 1961. Young Rita Tushingham would win an acting award at Cannes for her portrayal of Jo, attempting to figure out who she is after her mother Helen (Dora Bryan) leaves.
Helen is dependent on men for money, and is not close or loving with her daughter. Their relationship is fraught and bitter. Jo spurns Helen’s limited attempts at parental care. She meets Jimmy, a twenty-something sailor (Paul Danquah) who offers tender attention during a quick fling. Jo yearns for a life of her own, a room of her own, and for a short time she has it… but then she takes in new friend Geoffrey (Murray Melvin, who originated the role in the London production) and finds out she’s pregnant.
“I don’t want to be a woman,” Jo whines to Geoff, overwhelmed by her life’s trajectory and its similarity to her mother’s. Tushingham, her expressive face framed by an unattractive bob, plays a Jo that is never reticent or subtle with her emotions. Geoffrey’s character couldn’t be explicitly or openly gay (due to government restrictions at the time), but there are definite hints. Melvin plays him as a caretaker for Jo, hoping for acceptance and welcome in their own family unit. I noticed vague thematic similarities to 1998’s The Object of My Affection (screenplay written by another woman playwright, Wendy Wasserstein); this element of the plot surely seemed novel at the time.
Richardson’s fast-paced direction and Walter Lassaly’s cinematography frame Jo’s story and base it in grim reality. A Taste of Honey set the tone for later films to come, from the controversial relationships portrayed, the choice to film on location, to Lassaly’s use of handheld camera and different film stock. With an ending reminiscent of Nights of Cabiria, Jo’s tale isn’t completely without hope.
Special Features and Extras:
- Interviews with Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin
- Video essay from cinematographer Walter Lassaly
- Kate Dorney, theatre scholar, speaks about playwright Shelagh Delaney and the play’s origins in Remaking British Theater: Joan Littlewood and “A Taste of Honey”
- Director Tony Richardson’s earlier 1956 short, Momma Don’t Allow
- Archived interviews with director Richardson and playwright Delaney
Blu-Ray and DVD editions of A Taste of Honey are available to order from Criterion starting August 23.