Jodie Prenger talks about taking on the iconic role of Helen in a new National Theatre production of Shelagh Delaney’s career-defining play A TASTE OF HONEY
More than 60 years after its controversial run in London’s West End, Shelagh Delaney’s career-defining play A TASTE OF HONEY returns home to Salford with a new National Theatre production opening at The Lowry before embarking on a new UK tour.
Featuring Jodie Prenger in the iconic role of Helen, A TASTE OF HONEY tells the story of feisty teenager Jo, who begins a romantic relationship with a black sailor when her mother Helen runs off with a car salesman. Jimmy proposes marriage but then goes to sea, leaving Jo pregnant and alone. Gay art student Geoff moves in and assumes the role of a surrogate parent until Jo’s mother Helen returns, putting the future of Jo’s new home into question.
A dear friend of mine gave it to me to read and I absolutely fell in love
Written by Delaney when she was just 19 years old, A TASTE OF HONEY is considered one of the great taboo-breaking plays of the 1950s, celebrating the vulnerabilities and strengths of the female spirit in a deprived and restless world, something of which has always appealed to actress and singer Jodie Prenger about the play.
“A dear friend of mine gave it to me to read and I absolutely fell in love” explains Prenger in an exclusive interview with Donna Kelly from Frankly My Dear UK.
“It’s just so real, so honest and so tender. They were real people, they were real relationships – mother and daughter, Jo and Jimmy, Jo and Geoff – they are just genuine relationships of the day. Back then it was so taboo but it’s still so poignant today.”
Prenger plays Helen, a role originally played by Angela Lansbury on Broadway and Dora Bryan in the 1961 British film. Characterized by a domineering attitude and a tendency to follow only her selfish whims without considering the effects of her actions on others, Helen has an ambivalent relationship with her daughter Jo. The iconic character is often considered cruel, yet, despite her selfish actions in the play, Prenger doesn’t see her as a monster.
“I just think she’s real. I think the only way you can play a character like Helen is keeping it real. With a show like this, you have to play the truth. I don’t find Helen a monster, I just find her a character of circumstance, to be honest.”
I find Helen and Jo in particular, although they are polar opposites, they are also so similar. I think that’s why they come up against each other. A bit like me and my mother to be honest.
“It was the mother-daughter relationship that really got me. You’ve got to take it from experience. I find Helen and Jo in particular, although they are polar opposites, they are also so similar. I think that’s why they come up against each other. A bit like me and my mother to be honest.”
Those who have followed Prenger’s career since winning BBC television series I’D DO ANYTHING in 2008 will know the Blackpool-born actress is no stranger to taking on iconic roles. In the past two years, she’s played Beverley in Mike Leigh’s ABIGAIL’S PARTY, Miss Hannigan in ANNIE and the title role in Willy Russell’s SHIRLEY VALENTINE to name but a few.
“I’ve gone back in decades with SHIRLEY VALENTINE and ABIGAIL’S PARTY” laughs Prenger.
“I think the similarities with all of them are these really strong female characters. It’s the layers of a character which I really enjoy getting my teeth stuck into and all of them have it really.”
Yet, despite her extensive theatre experience, Prenger admits she still feel some pressure, especially when taking A TASTE OF HONEY to Salford, the location where the play is set.
“You always do. You do feel the pressure but you also work at it. That’s when you get your confidence. I think I’ll probably get more nervous in Salford because I’m performing in front of my aunties and uncles.”
“There is a beating heart with Manchester and I think there is a beating heart with the play itself. There’s this feeling that even though they are up against so much, they still fight and strive, they’ve still got that warm, genuine humour.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time the National Theatre has put on A TASTE OF HONEY. Following the success of its run in 2014 starring Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn, this new production sees Bijan Sheibani return as Director and Hildegard Bechtler return as the Designer, giving the production a fresh edge with a strong 50s aesthetic look, whilst still feeling ‘of the moment’.
It’s witty, its tender in moments and it’s got these feisty female characters which I think are always interesting to watch
“It’s the same production team as the 2014 production at the National, but what Bijan and Hildegard are really set are making it poignant and setting it today. There’s a live band with music. In rehearsals, we’ve played music like Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, Amy Winehouse, but there’s also live jazz and folk music. It that’s rhythm, that beat.”
Those familiar with the play will know A TASTE OF HONEY is unarguably a socially significant story. Yet, while this is a story of the 50s, at its heart, it’s also about family (albeit a fairly dysfunctional one) with rich in themes that will resonate with audiences today, comments Prenger.
“It’s witty, its tender in moments and it’s got these feisty female characters which I think are always interesting to watch”.
“People still want dark comedy – they want the wit and they want the humour. I just did ABIGAIL’S PARTY and that was very much dark comedy, so I enjoy it. I’m looking forward to rehearsals.”
A TASTE OF HONEY opens at Salford’s The Lowry on 13 September before touring nationally.
Donna is the Founder and Editor of Frankly, My Dear UK. By day, she works as a digital marketing specialist, by night she reviews film, theatre and music for a wide range of publications including WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub. Loves Formula 1, prosecco and life.