Sweetly Sings the Donkey: Celebrating Shelagh Delaney in Her Salford Hometown

Shelagh Delaney (1938-2011) was a pioneering writer from Salford known for her brilliant plays based in the city, which continue to be widely performed today. Her work is accessible, down-to-earth and funny, and her writing addresses many issues which are still relevant in Salford – and beyond – in 2017.

Delaney Artwork Insitu II August 2017

While perhaps best known for her highly influential first play, A Taste of Honey, which was subsequently made into a popular film, Delaney also wrote extensively for television, radio and film. This wide-ranging work included the screenplay for the critically acclaimed film Dance with a Stranger, which starred actors Miranda Richardson and Rupert Everett early on in their respective careers.

Sweetly Sings the Donkey has been adapted for the stage by writer Charlotte Delaney, Shelagh’s daughter. Previously a trilogy of radio plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4, it was originally developed from a semi-autobiographical short story written by Shelagh Delaney in 1963, and is included in her collection of short stories of the same name.

Donkey Rides

In the play, we first meet young girls Lillian, Nina, Vivian and Barbara in the austere post- war Blackpool convalescent home where they have been sent to recover from their various ailments. Under the watchful and unforgiving eye of the resident nuns, the girls form a friendship that will last a lifetime and their world is brought to life through merciless humour and honesty.

Decades later we catch up with them and learn of the adventures and adversities they have faced both together and apart, including in a prison, a convent and during a stint as a serial killer. In the end, their irritations and frustrations with each other surrender to the loyalty and furious love that only friendship can provide.

Along with Charlotte Delaney, Sweetly Sings the Donkey is being staged in collaboration with MaD Theatre Company, who are directing, the Guinness Partnership (registered housing provider), the Working Class Movement Library and the University of Oxford.

The Guinness Partnership recently renamed a tower block in Salford after Shelagh Delaney and a specially commissioned artwork featuring the writer has been installed in the main foyer of both entrances to the building. The newly renovated Delaney Heights (Salford, M3) is also home to the exciting new community theatre group – the Delaney Theatre Group – who will perform Sweetly Sings the Donkey at The Lowry.

The Delaney Theatre Group first met in January 2017 and brings together local residents and Guinness staff across a wide age range in a fun, supportive and creative environment. This collaboration, it is also planned, will lead to the establishment of a long-running community theatre group based at Delaney Heights.

Paul Heaton, Housing Manager at The Guinness Partnership, observes, ‘Our hope is that the Theatre Group will help not only to mark Shelagh Delaney’s contribution, along with the recently renamed block, but, at the same time, build a sense of community both within this housing development and the wider Salford neighbourhood’.

Both the new stage production of Sweetly Sings the Donkey and the Delaney Theatre Group are also part of a major Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project based at the University of Oxford which looks at Feminism, Culture and Women’s Lives in Britain, c.1945-c.2015.

Professor Selina Todd, Co-Director of the Women in the Humanities programme at the University, leads this project and is writing the first and only authorised biography of Shelagh Delaney, which will be published next year.

Sweetly Sings the Donkey is at The Lowry 7 September (sold out) – 8 September. Tickets available here.

For more information about the Delaney Theatre Group or the Feminism, Culture and Women’s Lives in Britain, c.1945-c.2015 AHRC Project, please contact Andrea Thomson: andrea.thomson@history.ox.ac.uk