The Marlowe
Why life is sweet for Gemma

Why life is sweet for Gemma

Award-winning actress Gemma Dobson tells us what has drawn her back to A Taste Of Honey and why she’s so passionate about bringing theatre to everyone.

Do you remember when you first encountered Shelagh Delaney’s seminal play, A Taste Of Honey?
I can. The first time I read it I came away feeling like I knew the characters. I didn’t know what to do with myself because it was just so brilliant.

My first job was last year in Rita, Sue And Bob Too by Andrea Dunbar, who, like Shelagh Delaney, was another young, working class woman who wrote her first play at school. We used to do Q&As after the show and the question “How does it compare to A Taste Of Honey” came up a lot. I got to know about it that way. Then I played Jo in a production in Oldham, which was amazing. I fell in love with the play and with Shelagh.

Having played Jo in that Oldham Coliseum production in 2018, why did you want to return to the play?
It was quite a short run in Oldham. We rehearsed it for four weeks and it was only on for two weeks. It was an amazing experience, but sometimes you don’t really get your teeth into a play until you’ve been doing it for a while. I loved it so much and when it finished I felt I could have done it for a lot longer. When it came up again, I thought it would be amazing, both because I get to revisit the part and the play and because it’s a dream come true to work for the National Theatre. I was over the moon to audition for it, let alone get the role.

Jo is 17, she lives with a mother who has issues with love, parenthood and alcohol, and she gets caught up in a relationship that would have been frowned upon. Why do you love playing her?
She’s brilliant. She’s a wild child. Her emotions are so zig-zaggy throughout the play, but at the heart of her she’s just searching for love. She craves it. Everything else masks that. There’s never a dull moment. She’s really feisty and brave and she’s got no inhibitions. She doesn’t care that Jimmy’s black. She doesn’t care that Geof is gay. She doesn’t care who sees her. To have that freedom of thought… She contradicts herself quite a lot, but who doesn’t? Everything’s so real and raw.

She’s massively flawed. Some of the things she says in the play are outrageous. But that’s what makes it so real; Shelagh’s not written it so you like these people, she’s just written them as real people. Whether you like them or not is up to you.

As you say, some of the things Jo does were considered massively taboo when the play was first staged in 1958. Surely they’re less so now. Does that change the impact of the play?
It was so taboo all those years ago, but it’s still quite taboo now! It’s about single parents and working class women. The themes of the play are really relevant today, especially the social aspects, the poverty, overcrowding and homelessness.

In terms of race and homosexuality, we’ve come a long way from the 50s and the 60s, though I think there’s still a long way to go. But in terms of the social aspect of it, I don’t think we have come that far. People still live in similar conditions and circumstances. You’ve still got problems with slum landlords. You’ve still got a shortage of housing and poor standard of living. You’ve got families going to food banks to feed their kids because they can’t afford to put food on the table. We’re not that far away from where we were and it’s 60 years later. In this day and age I think that’s appalling. So I definitely think A Taste Of Honey has got a lot to say now, probably more than ever.

It was also groundbreaking in its portrayal of working class women…
It was. It shows women aren’t just baby-making machines and housewives. Women are so much more than that. They can have dreams. If they want to raise a child as a single parent and not do the conventional, socially-acceptable thing, that’s okay. It’s possible; it’s just that it was frowned upon. Shelagh was a real champion of women and letting them be who they wanted to be. And she put working class characters centre stage instead of them being just a caricature.

How important is it that those working class characters were, and are still, seen on stage?
Massively. If you are only exposed to plays that are about the upper class, people that are not from your world or don’t represent you at all, how would that inspire or encourage anyone to go to the theatre or make them think there’s any place for them in the theatre world? Theatre was made, originally, for the people. Theatre is supposed to represent everyone, and it should represent everyone equally.

You mentioned theatre being for everyone. How important is it then that the National Theatre is touring this around the UK and offering workshops too?
It’s brilliant to tour it and it’s lovely that they are reaching out to the communities. The really great thing about this tour is the workshops with schoolkids, as A Taste Of Honey is on the curriculum. When we go to Salford in particular, where the play is set, there’s going to be quite a lot for kids. This is a play that’s from their world. They might think ‘This play’s set in Salford, maybe I could be a playwright. Maybe that means I could be an actor.’

Did your first experience of theatre come at school?
It was panto. That would have been my first. I used to love it. And we had a little drama club at primary school. When I went to high school I was on a performing arts course and I used to do extra drama lessons. It was then that I fell in love with drama and discovered all these plays. That’s why I think drama at school is so important, because it’s just not something that you’d normally do where I grew up; you don’t take your kids to the theatre. And even if kids don’t want to get into drama or be an actor, doing drama gives them confidence.

Jodie Prenger plays your Mum, Helen, in A Taste Of Honey. How have you found working with her?
I won a Stage Debut Award for Rita, Sue And Bob Too, and Jodie presented it to me, which was so bizarre. We had a chat afterwards. Five months later, I went to the National Theatre for the audition and she was sat in the foyer! I said, ‘What are you doing here? Can you imagine if we both got it, we’d have a right laugh!’ And we are!

How do you feel about bringing the play to Canterbury?
I played Canterbury with Rita, Sue And Bob Too. It’s a beautiful theatre and a beautiful place. All the staff there are amazing. And they’ve got an escape room! It’s a two-minute walk around the corner. The guy who runs it, Phil, said he’d open it up for us. He built it all himself, it’s really cool.

And finally, what can audiences expect from a trip to see A Taste Of Honey?
I think audiences can expect a hilarious and really moving story. It will make you laugh and it will make you cry. It’s shocking at times and it’s moving at times. It’s a real rollercoaster.