Saturday, April 22, 2017

Recovering a Lost Treasure: The Criterion Blu-ray Release of Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey (1961)

Rita Tushingham as Jo in Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey 

Shelagh Delaney was only nineteen when she wrote A Taste of Honey, a 1958 coming-of-age play about a teenage girl set in Delaney’s home town of Salford, Lancashire, but it’s one of the treasures of its patch of British theatre, sometimes called the angry young man movement and sometimes the epoch of kitchen-sink realism. The heroine, Jo – played in the West End by Frances Cuka and on Broadway in 1960 by Joan Plowright – lives with her promiscuous mother, Helen, who sneaks them out of their digs whenever they can’t pay the rent and relocates so often that Jo never has a chance to make school friends. Helen cares about Jo, though they quarrel habitually and Helen’s attention has a habit of wandering. At forty, she finds a man eight years her junior who wants to marry her; he and Jo can’t get n so, she goes off to live with him and leaves her self-sufficient daughter behind. Jo has a fling with a sailor; after he goes off on his ship she discovers she’s pregnant. She sets up house with a gay man named Geoffrey who’s devoted to her, but when he decides to hunt down her mother because he thinks Helen should know about Jo’s condition, he finds himself displaced. Helen’s new husband leaves her for a younger woman (“his bit of crumpet”) and she’s drawn back to the daughter she traded in for a new life.

This lovely little play, with its impeccable realist dialogue – exotic enough for North American audiences to sound like poetic realism – is almost never revived. (I was fortunate enough to see Amanda Plummer play Jo in New York in 1981.) Luckily there’s a 1961 movie version, directed by Tony Richardson for Woodfall Films, the heart of the English New Wave movies in the late fifties and the sixties. Richardson, who had already made movies of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer (both of which he’d directed on stage), worked with Delaney on the screenplay. The play is a fluid series of small scenes; the movie clarifies the stages of the narrative and provides specific locations that enhance the realism. In the gorgeous recent Criterion Blu-ray the Lancashire settings, shot by Walter Lassaly, have a gritty, tactile warmth that envelops the characters: Jo (played by the startling, huge-eyed young actress Rita Tushingham, making her film debut) Helen (Dora Bryan), Geoff (Murray Melvin), the sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah), and Helen’s “fancy man” Peter (Robert Stephens).

The movie is about outsiders. Jo’s unsettled upbringing and her imagination have made her too unconventional for the communities she moves in and out of so quickly; she’s wised-up beyond her years in some ways, a longing little girl in others, and Tushingham gets both sides. She’s the most original young female protagonist in any play I can think of after Frankie Addams in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. Geoff is gay, Jimmy is black, and Helen drifts from man to man – Jo’s father was her first lover, but all they shared was one afternoon of sex – and finally she doesn’t belong to anyone except Jo. (Bryan is superb and so, in his few scenes, is Danquah.) And it’s also about the inevitability of growing up, which is portrayed plaintively. Jo and Geoff are like a pair of children playing house; when Helen moves back in with her daughter and shoves Geoff out, it’s a little like she’s shut the door on Peter Pan, even though Geoff knows how to do the domestic things that were a mystery to Peter. Melvin is very good but the movie romanticizes him. We never see him with another man, though the movie hints that his last landlady chucked him out because she caught him in bed with one. Richardson surrounds him – and Jo, when they’re living together – with the local children; before he goes on his way, he lingers with them at a bonfire, peeking out at Jo, who’s now been removed from his purview. It’s like Peter Pan peering through the window in the last scene of Barrie’s play at the now grown-up Wendy.

The mother-daughter relationship in A Taste of Honey is written with a confidence you can hardly believe a nineteen-year-old could be capable of, and it’s sympathetic to both the women, even when Helen leaves Jo to her own devices because she can’t resist putting her new man first. “Oh, Jo, why can’t you learn from my mistakes?” Helen demands. “It takes half your lifetime to learn from your own.” In the movie’s best scene, Jo insists on accompanying Helen and Peter on a holiday with a couple of Peter’s friends and then behaves so badly that Peter, who didn’t bargain on having to deal with a teenager – he didn’t even realize Helen had a child until Jo interrupted their goodnight cuddle at the bottom of the stairs – gets fed up and makes Helen send her home. Jo resents him for stealing her time with Helen and her acting out sours the afternoon for everybody. (Stephens is a fine actor, and this is the high point of his performance.) You can see why American art-house audiences were drawn to the English imports in this period, like this and the Osborne pictures and Room at the Top and Jack Cardiff’s adaptation of Sons and Lovers: no one with this kind of sensibility got the chance to air it in a Hollywood movie in 1961. Pity this one has fallen by the wayside. Criterion has done movie lovers a real service by picking it up and restoring it to its original muted splendor.

A Taste of Honey comes with a new, restored, 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray. New interviews with actors Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin. Audio interview with director and coscreenwriter Tony Richardson from the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. Excerpt from a 1960 television interview with A Taste of Honey playwright Shelagh Delaney. Interview from 1998 with cinematographer Walter Lassally. Remaking British Theater: Joan Littlewood and “A Taste of Honey,” a new piece about the film’s stage origins, featuring an interview with theater scholar Kate Dorney. Momma Don’t Allow (1956), a Free Cinema short film by Richardson, shot by Lassally. An essay by film scholar Colin MacCabe.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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