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Rebecca Ryan - A Taste of Honey

Rebecca Ryan is pregnant again. At just twenty-one years old, the
former star of council estate comedy drama Shameless has had more buns
in the oven than most. The last time was during a two year stint on TV
in Waterloo Road, in which Ryan's character, schoolgirl Vicky McDonald,
became pregnant. Before that Ryan played a pregnant runaway in Laurence
Wilson's stage play, Lost Monsters. Now it's the big one, as Ryan
prepares to play Jo, the lippy Salford teenager in Shelagh Delaney's
iconic 1958 play, A Taste of Honey, in the Royal Lyceum Theatre,
Edinburgh's new production of this iconic but somewhat neglected play.

Ryan struts around the rehearsal room as Jo, tearing verbal chunks out
of Lucy Black, who plays Jo's slatternly mother, Helen, her cardigan
stretched by the pillow-like appendage stuffed under it. Watching Ryan,
it could be an older version of Debbie Gallagher, the youngest of
Shameless's tempestuous Gallagher clan brought vividly to life by
writer Paul Abbot. Ryan played Debbie for  six years, being cast in the
programme when she was just eleven. Once rehearsals are over, Ryan
couldn't be more different to the troubled adolescents she's become so
adept at playing.

“Jo's learnt to take care of herself, and is very independent,” Ryan
says. “She'd have to be with a mother like Helen. She's brought herself
up, basically, and has gone weeks without Helen even being there. They
have a very fiery relationship, but as much as she says in the play
that she hates Helen and doesn't want to end up like her, she is
becoming her, because it's all she knows. She doesn't know any other
way, so as much as she detests how Helen lives, she ends up becoming
exactly the same.”

There was an example of this earlier, when Jo's gay best friend
Geoffrey, played by Ryan's brother Charlie, tried to break up Jo and
Helen's slanging match, only for the pair to gang up on him.

“That's how they cope,” says Ryan. “In a way it's like in families,
when I can call my brother something, but no-one else can. That's Helen
and Jo's relationship, and that's how they fight. They're at each
other's throat one minute, then the next one of them is asking what's
for tea.”

Delaney, who died in 2011 aged 73,  famously wrote A Taste of Honey
after watching Terence Rattigan's Variations On A Theme at Manchester
Opera House. Delaney was so appalled at what she saw as Rattigan's
insensitive treatment of homosexuals that she wrote A Taste of Honey in
a precocious ten days. The play was accepted by Joan Littlewood's
Theatre Workshop company, and became a taboo-busting hit, with race,
class, sexuality and gender all coming into play. A more naturalistic
film version directed by Tony Richardson appeared in 1961. This proved
to be hugely influential, not least on Salford-born Smiths singer,
Morrissey, who lifted many of his early lyrics from Delaney's play. The
Smiths song, This Has Opened My Eyes, presented Delaney's narrative in
miniature.

Delaney's follow-up to A Taste of Honey, The Lion in Love, received a
lukewarm response, and Delaney wrote fiction and screenplays, fading
from view until her death. While neglected, A Taste of Honey paved the
way for other working class female writers, including Andrea Dunbar,
who wrote her first play, The Arbor, aged fifteen before penning Rota,
Sue and Bob Too. It's easy too to see a lineage that stretches to Jim
Cartwright's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. It's even arguable that
Shameless couldn't have existed without A Taste of Honey.

Given her age, Ryan was unsurprisingly only vaguely aware of the play
before she signed up for Tony Cownie's Royal Lyceum production, but she
recognised its backdrop from the off.

“It's really hard-hitting, and grabs you straight away,” she says.”It's
quite an  intense piece, which is great to get your teeth into. It
must've been quite hard-hitting and shocking at the time it came out,
but I think it still is even now. You know a lot more about the things
that happen in the play now, but the relationships between them onstage
are just as shocking. I think the things that happen in the play are
just as bad as when they were written, so it really stands the test of
time.”

Ryan was born in Prestwich, a Manchester suburb a stone's throw from
the Salford back-streets where A Taste of Honey is set. While by no
means part of a showbiz family, Ryan's mother had been a world champion
Irish dancer, and Ryan looked set to continue the tradition. Charlie
had become interested in drama at school, and had worked on television
as a child actor from an early age.

When she was six, Ryan accompanied her brother for an audition for The
Who's rock opera, Tommy, at the same venue where Delaney had seen
Rattigan's play. she ended up being given the part of the young Tommy.
Despite enjoying the experience, Ryan drifted back to her dancing until
Charlie got a part in Paul Abbott's prescient political thriller, State
of Play, playing the son of David Morrissey's character. The producers
had yet to find anyone to play the younger sister of Charlie's
character, and Charlie let slip that he had an actual little sister who
might fit the bill. The pair auditioned together, and Ryan got the
part. This led directly to Abbot asking her to audition for Shameless,
which changed everything.

“I was just going into high school,” Ryan remembers, “so because I was
so young it was just what I did and I got on with it and everyone I
knew just accepted it. Everybody loved the programme, so that helped,
and it was such a family unit there, that was when I realised I how
much I loved it, and couldn't imagine doing anything else. I wouldn't
be here now doing this if it wasn't for Shameless. It opened every door
it possibly could, and everything that's happened to me since is
because of it. I loved every second of it.”

While working alongside David Threlfall, Maxine Peake, James McAvoy and
Anne-Marie Duff was all the acting education she needed, Ryan left
Shameless shortly before her eighteenth birthday. She made her stage
debut at the Royal Court in London in Fiona Evans' Edinburgh Festival
Fringe hit, Scarborough. Beyond A Taste of Honey, Ryan would like to
diversify beyond playing council estate mums.

“I'd love to get into Downton Abbey,” she gushes. “My other favourite
thing is Smash, but I'd have to play a non-singing part as I can't
sing. I'd just like to show people a different side to me.”

A Taste of Honey, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, January
18th-February 9th
www.lyceum.org.uk
The Herald, January 15th 2013

ends

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