A Stage Presence

Harriet Moore

Photograph of Watford Palace Theatre (undated c20th century)
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies. WatSerA_0011-00_01
Advertising poster for "Loot" by Joe Orton (1995)
Watford Palace Theatre. DE/WPT/P6/64
Programme for 'A Taste of Honey
Watford Palace Theatre. DE/WPT/P5/1216
Programmes for 'A Taste of Honey' and 'Loot' (both 1968)
Watford Palace Theatre. DE/WPT/P5/835 and DE/WPT/P5/837

Hertfordshire’s theatre sector has played a role in communicating society’s developing relationship with LGBTQ+ themes during the 20th Century.

In March 1968 the Watford Palace Theatre put on a production of Joe Orton’s Loot.  Written in 1965, Loot was shown in the West End in 1966 and in New York in 1968; Watford’s production presented a 23-year-old Martin Shaw as Hal. It was written as a ‘comedy-thriller’ but presented some radical themes for the time, not least that of the stereotypical English detective inspector. During the 1950s, society’s image of the friendly ‘bobby’ was rarely questioned – Loot induced audience shockwaves and subsequent walkouts with its critique of police malpractice, despite it reflecting people’s developing shift in opinion away from officialdom & moralism.

Whilst Loot contains no obvious LGBTQ+ themes, the societally-elite Orton used his privilege to live his own life with relative sexual freedom, despite legislation at the time preventing the rest of the population from doing so.  As his cachet increased, he became less and less conservative; despite having the money to pay for relative privacy in living as a homosexual, he chose to exercise diminished discretion over time. In this way,Orton used his class and resources to force social change, thus helping to initiate more progressive attitudes towards queer theatre, despite the 1968 Theatre Act continuing to prosecute plays on the grounds of obscenity.

This appears to have been as far as Orton was prepared to go however – his diaries suggest little further interest in other gay productions, influencing legislation or pushing for moves to abolish stage censorship.

Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, on the other hand, with its engagement with much broader political and social issues, formed part of a new era of plays benefitting from State financial support as forming a basis for social good. The Watford Palace Theatre showed productions of A Taste of Honey in both October 1964 and January/February 1968. Written in 1958 by a 19-year-old Delaney, it was immediately taken up by Joan Littlewood and subsequently enjoyed runs at Manchester Opera House, the Theatre Royal, Stratford, the West End and Broadway. The infrequently-present and therefore radical LGBTQ+ theme was handled sympathetically, alongside other such progressive ideas (for the time) as single-parenthood, mixed-race relationships, unwanted teenage pregnancy, intergenerational resentment, inadequate education and poor housing.

The title biblically refers to the fleeting periods of happiness experienced by the characters, where homosexual tendencies are hinted at in Geof, the friend of the lead character Jo. Geof had been previously found with another man by his landlady. The play presents Geof positively, rather than in a homophobic light. This new dialogue was not so much whether characters are gay or straight but more a comment on their role in their relationships and within broader society.

Delaney went on to rewrite A Taste of Honey as a screenplay and it was ultimately developed into a film, directed by Tony Richardson. Delaney won awards across the board, for her play, her screenplay and the film.

It is in this way that Hertfordshire embraced this new era of plays in the last century, demonstrating a progressive approach to changing social and political issues, including LBGTQ+ themes. Indeed, it could be argued that, in actively scheduling this genre in the way they did, Hertfordshire theatres led the way in promoting an acceptance of gayness as being part of a solution to some of society’s problems rather than a cause.

This page was added on 17/01/2024.

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