The National is fully entitled to give a rare revival to what is arguably one of the most important British plays of the 20th Century. Written by Shelagh Delaney and first staged in 1958, the play differs from the works of other playwrights breaking through at the same time (Osborne, Wesker) in that it is not used as a platform for airing political ideas, it is purely and simply a human drama with a working class setting. It is astonishing that Delaney wrote it at the age of just 18 and still more so that she had the confidence and the courage to confront the taboos and prejudices of her era – teenage pregnancy, racism, homophobia – head on. We are told that Delaney wrote it to prove that she could do better than Terence Rattigan and, in the sense of how ordinary people can relate to the play, she succeeded; yet, in terms of dramatic structure and characterisation, her debt to Rattigan’s influence is perhaps greater than she would have cared to admit. Of course, the play’s shock value has now dissipated, but what remains in Bijan Sheibani’s production is a very fine drama indeed, still highly relevant in the modern age and filled with warmth, emotion and natural humour. The story concerns Jo, a teenage schoolgirl and her slutty, self-centred mother, Helen, who live in a dingy, damp, Salford flat which can boast stunning views of the local gas works; Helen marries a drunk, whilst Jo becomes pregnant after a reckless fling with a black sailor and then co-habits with a gay student. Kate O’Flynn is marvellous as Jo (presumably based on Delaney herself), rebellious, grounded, optimistic and determined to overcome whatever obstacles life throws in her way; she embodies the spirit of the new Britain that was then emerging. The wonderful Lesley Sharp fits the part of Helen as if she was born to play it, managing to be both comic and tragic at the same time. 1950s style jazz music and dancing during scene changes add brightness and flavour and the problem that the Lyttelton stage poses for intimate dramas is resolved by effectively using only half of it. True, the set is grander than it needs to be, but at least it does not overwhelm the play. Shelagh Delaney died just over two years ago and this production is a fitting tribute to her.
Performance date: 3 March 2014