It is widely regarded as one of the greatest plays looking at working class life.

Now a new version of A Taste of Honey opens tonight at Manchester’s Royal Exchange giving audiences the chance to enjoy Shelagh Delaney’s classic study of a mother and daughter in intimate surroundings.

Bury Times: Jill Halfpenny, Obsdiah, Rowan Robinson and Andrew Sheridan in rehearsal for A Taste of Honey (Picture: Joel Fildes)

For Jill Halfpenny and Rowan Robinson who play Helen and Jo - the mother and daughter in question - it’s an opportunity neither could resist.

Jill is one of our most accomplished TV and stage actors. From her first start in Byker Grove she has appeared in top soaps, Coronation Street, EastEnders and Waterloo Road and TV dramas such as The Long Shadow. In the West End she has starred in Chicago, Abigail’s Party and Legally Blonde. Then there was her success in winning Strictly Come Dancing back in 2004.

In stark contrast, A Taste of Honey is Rowan’ professional stage debut after leaving Rada in 2022.

“I must have watched more shows at the Royal Exchange than at any other theatre,” said Manchester-born Rowan. “So it’s really special to be doing a play set in Salford at the Royal Exchange in my first role.

“I’ve always wanted to perform here, it’s such a great space. When this came along it was the perfect opportunity, the worlds came together.”

It will be Jill’s first time at the Royal Exchange too.

“I’ve come close a couple of times but things never quite worked out timewise,” she said. “ But with this when you want to work at a theatre and you really do want to do the play as well, it just feels all things are lining up.”

Bury Times: Jill Halfpenny in rehearsal for A Taste of Honey (Picture: Joel FIldes)

A Taste of Honey caused controversy when it was first performed. Helen, a single mum with an alcohol problem, forever dragged her highly-spirited daughter Jo from one crisis to another.

“There may be the odd little thing which you might think would not happen today,” said Jill, “but I’d say at least 90 per cent of the play could be happening today, especially the way the characters are judged for the way they live their lives - judging people is something that is still so prevalent.”

Rowan added: “I love the character of Jo. Shelagh Delaney put so much of herself into the character. I’ve seen the interviews she’s done and she’s such an alive, bold woman. You can’t help but like her.”

Jill too has been delighted by her character.

“It’s always interesting when you meet characters who seem insanely confident and are determined to walk their own path,” she said.

“For an actor the challenge is to work out why is she like that? How much of it is armour? Where are her vulnerabilities?

“Shelagh has given us such a rich tapestry to deal with. Although she may be dealing with one particular thing, in reality there are a million things going on underneath which is lovely.

“The more we do it, the more we can play with the richness of what’s going on with Helen internally.

Bury Times: Jill Halfpenny in rehearsal for A Taste of Honey (Picture: Joel Fildes)

“It’s just great fun. You have got two women who are brazen and brash at times but also extremely vulnerable. That’s a beautiful thing to swing in and out of.”

The prospect of bringing an iconic work to the stage could be daunting given that many in the audience will have their own interpretations of the characters and how things should proceed.

“That feeling of responsibility can be quite crushing creatively,” said Jill. “But you have to put that to one side. You have to accept that there will always be people who come to the show wanting to see it done in a certain way, they want to see their Helen but you have to accept you will never please everyone.

“As actors we have a responsibility to the play but we have to ask the audience to come on our ride which will be a different one from the last one they may have seen.

“But I think that’s what’s lovely about art. It’s not our responsibility what you think of it, that’s your business and we shouldn’t try to project anything on to you.

“We do what we think is right for our characters and then it’s yours.”

For this new production, directed by Emma Baggott, music will play an essential role with a jazz score sung by Nishla Smith running through the show.

“The music adds really a nice dynamic,” said Rowan. “Nishla’s voice is so beautiful. It’s lovely to hear.”

Both Jill and Rowan can’t wait to take the show from the rehearsal space into the Royal Exchange.

Bury Times: Rowan Robinson in rehearsal for A Taste of Honey 
   (Picture: Joel Fildes)

“The design and the movement, all lend themselves to that space,” said Rowan. “It fits the characters so well. They live for the moment and can do anything at the drop of a hat.

“But then it is also really exhausting. Every scene is like a workout both mentally and physically. We are moving all over the stage, then mentally your emotions are going everywhere.

“It is a very exhausting process but we are having a lot of fun with it.”

When it was first staged as a play in the late Fifties and then became a movie in 1961 many people were outraged by what they saw as the affront to society with the portrayal of a blowsy mum and her equally wild daughter.

“It’s all too easy to say it’s about an alcoholic mum who abandons her child,” said Jill, “but that’s far too simplistic.

“What we might see as harsh or cruel is Helen or Jo’s way of saying ‘I just want you to love me’. Some people are not brought up with a palate to express themselves. It’s often the people we are closest to that we behave the worst towards.

Bury Times: David Moorst, Obadiah and Rowan Robinson in rehearsal for A Taste of Honey (Picture: Joel Fildes)

“Helen and Jo understand each other in a way no-one else in their world really will. They are like ‘we know it’s messed up but we know what it is and it’s our mess’.”

She added: “I do feel the whole subject of a mother being judged very interesting. It’s something I have felt myself as a mother and also how it can affect you when you read about what a mother might or might not have done.”

A Taste of Honey, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, until Saturday, April 13. Details from