I was asked recently what effect A Taste of Honey had had on my life. All I could remember were a handful of idiot teachers who said things like: ‘I bet you want to be a writer when you grow up, don’t you?’ and ‘Do you want to be famous, like your mum?’ Then there were the others who insisted on asking me to wax lyrical about the symbolism of a bare light bulb in a squalid flat. Of course there is no symbolism; it’s exactly the right thing in the right place. Had it been an exquisite Tiffany lamp – well that would be a different matter. My mum rarely talked about Honey except to tell me she’d refused yet another request to mount a production of it in the Capital. Most of the articles I have read have concentrated on that iconic moment in her life and why it was never repeated. The fact that she continued to work, to write, her whole life, is apparently dwarfed by a lack of ‘fame’ which is, as we know, the currency used to measure a person’s talent these days.
My mum enjoyed much of the success Honey brought to her door: it gave her the freedom to explore the world, with me in tow usually; the money was nice and she was always generous with it and she met many of her heroes: Stirling Moss; Studs Terkel; Karen Blixen; Paul Newman; Katharine Hepburn – the list goes on and on. However, she did not want to be tied down to an idea of who she was ‘then’ and I think any of the people who continued to have a friendship with her after this brief moment in time, would agree. In this short film by Ken Russell it’s plain to see that even as a young woman, she had far more on her mind than ‘how to be famous’.
My mum was able, better than anybody else I’ve ever met, to live in the present moment and although she was proud of Honey’s success and happy to leave behind a body of work that included it, she was no Miss Havisham, lost in the past and longing for its return. One of the main reasons she never allowed a big production of Honey to be done in London in her lifetime was because she couldn’t bear the thought of those relentless and predictable questions – and those relentless quotes from people who had been there but who had little to say about her in the here and now.
'When I’m dead you can take care of A Taste of Honey,’ she said. ‘And send that Morrissey chap something from me.’
Done and done.
Contrary to popular belief, it was watching a production of Waiting for Godot whilst working as an usherette, that gave her the push she needed to lock herself away with a borrowed typewriter and write A Taste of Honey – Godot showed her that there were other voices that absolutely needed to be written and to be heard. That the theatre, like a good fairground, should have something for everyone. Time was of the essence, her father was dying and she wanted it finished before he was. Fortunately that particular deadline was met.
Frances Cuka (Jo) and Murray Melvin (Geoffrey) in the 1958 production.
So, finally Honey is about to enjoy its first big London outing in 50 years and as a result I’ve been talking and thinking about it a lot of late. The only performance of it I had seen was Peter Zadek’s production in Hamburg. He had used the first and original script, which would have been fine if he hadn’t got carried with the music which made it too long. Having agreed to the National’s request to stage it, with Bijan Sheibani directing, I thought it best if I read it again; up until that point it was something I’d talked about with my mum, but not given a whole lot of thought. It was a good job because one of the cast members asked me:
'What do you think A Taste of Honey is really about?’
Here is my honest reply to that question.