Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Harry Hepple and Eric Kofi Abrefa in A Taste of Honey at the National Theatre

WRITTEN when she was just 18, Shelagh Delaney's "kitchen sink" play was hailed as one of the greatest taboo-breaking works of its time.
A Taste Of Honey was groundbreaking in confronting issues of class, race, gender and sexual orientation in mid-20th century Britain.
The centres on the character of Helen and her feisty teenage daughter Jo. When Helen runs off with a car salesman, Jo takes up with Jimmy a black sailor who promises to marry her, before he heads off back to sea, leaving her pregnant and alone.
Art student Geoff moves in and assumes the role of surrogate parent until, misguidedly, he sends for Helen and their unconventional setup unravels.
Now almost 60 years on A Taste Of Honey is back and in a new revival which has just opened at the National Theatre.
Amongst its star studded cast are two young actors from South London. Eric Kofi Abrefa from Stockwell and Forest Hill-based Harry Hepple, who play Jimmy and Geoff respectively. They admit the themes thrown up by the piece have meant it’s been a learning curve for both of them.
"It is set in a time where attitudes to everything were very different to how they are now,” says Harry.
"Life experiences were very different. People frowned on single teenage mothers back then but in many ways it was less about age and more about the fact a woman wasn’t married - that was the real crime.
"Now people don't bat an eyelid if a woman has a child but isn't married, and they aren't chained to the kitchen sink, but in those days there was definitely an expectation that any woman having a child would be married and she would look after her husband and kids."
To help put the issues raised by the piece into historical context, during rehearsals the cast was visited by women who talked to them about what life was like in the 1950s.
"It was a bit of an eye opener!” laughs Harry. "We were told stories about what life was like if you were black, gay or unmarried with a child. Some of the attitudes people had are quite shocking."
"I was also amazed about how big a deal it was to have a mixed race child,” adds Eric.
"They talked about mixed race communities and the myths that were purported at the time, for example if you had sex with a black man and sex with a white man and conceived a child there was still a possibility it would be mixed race. It's incredible to think it was only 50 years ago people had those views."
But they agree it's been a fantastic experience to be part of.
"It's a brilliant play, so well written and observed," says Eric. "It's a fascinating subject and we've learned such a lot from it.
"People still relate to it," he adds. "I was born and grew up in Stockwell and have seen attitudes change over the years. However there are still pockets of racism and there is still a concern about being gay, teenage pregnancy or being a single parent in some communities. Thankfully attitudes are changing though."
And for Harry it was groundbreaking in other ways.
"It's one of those seminal plays which I'm sure is responsible for some of the TV shows we watch today," he says.
"Coronation Street, Phoenix Nights and The Royale Family, they are really successful and groundbreaking in their own way. Nothing really controversial happens in The Royale Family - we just see them going about their lives - but it’s compelling and the characters are ones that people relate to.
"Although it was of its time A Taste Of Honey really tried to break the mould. What’s brilliant for me about it is that it’s about two women, the relationship between a mother and daughter, and we get to hear their voices.
"The male characters are satellites and that’s rare as normally it's the other way round and the men dominate the play.
"It’s nice to be part of something so different."
And both are excited to be bringing it to the National's Lyttelton stage.
"It’s always a privilege to be here,” says Eric. "And to be part of such an amazing piece of work is very exciting."
"There's a fantastic community and family spirit within the building,” adds Harry warmly. “When I was training it always looked quite daunting. You can’t easily see in because it’s a big concrete building, but when you are inside it’s really nice and everyone is lovely.
"It’s the epicentre of great theatre and a lovely place to work."

A Taste of Honey is on at the Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre until Sunday, May 11. Tickets from £15. Call the box office on 020 7452 3000  

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