Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Louder than Bombs: Shelagh Delaney

The playwright Shelagh Delaney, who has died aged 71, caused a sensation with her first play A Taste of Honey (1958). Bored with the drawing room theatre that dominated postwar British playhouses, Delaney borrowed a typewriter, took a fortnight's leave, and wrote her play about a teenage girl, Jo, who falls pregnant after an affair with a young Nigerian sailor; abandoned by her mother, a young gay man looks after her. The play is set in her home town of Salford and articulates the rhythms of its speech and its longings for the first time on the London stage. Delaney turned for writing advice to the great director and producer Joan Littlewood, at that time still co-ordinating a cultural revolution from Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Littlewood's marvellous memoir Joan's Book (1994) offers her side of this intriguing collaboration.

If the author had re-read her script, she certainly hadn't pruned it. It remained as it had been when it emerged from that unbelievable typrewriter. [...] The ending was downbeat. Jo was whisked off to the hospital to have her baby and Geoff lay down on the couch with a life-sized baby doll to commit suicide. We tried several alternatives. Avis [Bunnage] ad libbed the best closing line, 'Can you cut the bread on it yet?'
    How did Shelagh take all this? She arrived from Salford...she was going to watch one of the scenes.
    'Well, we've a lot of disjointed scenes', said Avis, 'and that's about it'.
    'Jazz will solve it' I said. 'Johnnie Wallbank has a group - trumpet, guitar, drums and sax. He can link the scenes and set the mood'.
[...] Shelagh sat through the first run with music. She didn't say a word.
    'What do you make of it?' I asked her.
    'I think it's going to be all right', she said. I don't think she noticed the difference between her draft and the company's adaptation.
[...] The play was a success, the audience arrived with agents and newshounds, anxious to get the lowdown on this teenage wonder. Louis MacNeice, the poet, came, slightly abashed to find himself watching 'this adolescent effusion'.
   Shelagh took all this is her stride, giving interviews, considering offers, opening her first bank account...She was seen in the right pubs coping with the latest drinks and entertaining her hosts with laconic comments in her broad Salford accent. (pp. 517-20)

The Smiths loved her work so much that they put her photo on the cover of  their 1987 compilation album Louder Than Bombs. Shelagh, take a bow.




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