Young, gifted and back

After 50 years, the story of Delaney the feisty teenage dramatist shines on

Radio 4's documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of the first performance of A Taste of Honey (22 May, 11.30am) practically gleamed. What a freak Shelagh Delaney was. The front! At 18, she sent a copy of her play to Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London, insisting that Littlewood post it back if she didn't make much of it, because even if she didn't, Shelagh certainly did.

Interviewed in 1958, the teenage playwright sounded magisterially basso, the kind of person who would come to after a blackout, craft a roll-up, and complete her sentence of three hours earlier. "Miss Delaney, what are you prepared to give in exchange for our society's present manners and morals?" asked an interviewer. "I don't know," said Shelagh dismissively, exuding sling your hook, mate.

The play was first performed by a theatre workshop in Manchester, which tried it out on dole queues until the cast thought it might be a good idea to get inside and actually use lights ("It gets dark early in the north"). Actors slept at the theatre and went about using words like "realistic" and "relevant" in a way that now brings tears to the eyes.

God, but some people were violent about it. One review: "A tart, a black, a girl with a baby, and a queer." Reporters scurried to find any dirt on Shelagh and discovered that she'd failed her eleven-plus four times. Horreur. Meanwhile, at Stratford East, Littlewood didn't send the play back, particularly admiring its interest in "people who live outside the world of the art racket".

She recruited a London cast and got the actors to "dance, pretend they were the Marx brothers, and say everything in double-time". Your standard Lee Strasbergian wotsit, therefore - but fun, we were assured, especially for Limeys.

The doc bought thrillingly into the mysteries of the rehearsal room, conjuring those narcotically nostalgic black-and-white photos of actors rehearsing, which I immediately turn to the moment I've bought a programme, because they constitute the only actually tolerable part of going to the theatre, apart from the bit where they let you out to have a vodka. I'm not talking about the stills of the performance itself, let me stress - just the rehearsals. Specifically: scripts tubed and covered in possible Sudoku solutions or the telephone numbers of just-recommended cranial osteopaths, two cast members sprawled over a comfortably collapsed sofa, and the director parlaying an earnest rant against Margaret Thatcher. (Whatever the year - even 1958 - it always feels like Thatcher.)

Much was also made of the play's character Geoff not being written explicitly as gay, so as to wheedle past the centuries-old censors. Delaney just had him down as an "art student" and the Lord Chamberlain agreed to turn a blind eye so long as things weren't made any more obvious in performance. Not unlike Gore Vidal smuggling a homoerotic subtext into his script for Ben-Hur but being careful not to point it out to Charlton Heston.

But, in the end, the Lord Chamberlain - recognising that the writing on the wall was straying in a particular direction as determinedly as a hand travelling from shoulder to breast at the Camden Odeon - changed the law anyway. So Shelagh, indeed, take a bow. And another, please.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?