Stuart King

Review: THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES at Almeida

In the era when Americans began dipping tentative toes in the boiling cauldron of civil rights, President Lyndon Johnson announced the introduction of legislation to remove the last vestiges of segregation. Those who vehemently rejected such notions remained intent on resisting revisions to the social order through intimidation and violence at voting stations. How little times have changed!

The Cast of The Secret Life Of Bees - Photo Credit Marc BrennerThe Cast of The Secret Life Of Bees - Photo Credit Marc Brenner

In The Secret Life of Bees, one forthright and emancipated young black woman Rosaleen (Abiona Omomua) is determined to exercise her right to register to vote. Accompanied by her timid white friend Lily (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) she falls foul of the aforementioned bullies and suffers a brutal attack, wrongful arrest and temporary incarceration. To escape further physical attacks and persecution the two friends leave town and eventually find themselves seeking sanctuary at a largely female community collective which reveres a black Madonna and keeps bees for honey production. Everyone has their own reason to welcome or behave with hostility towards the pair and so concerns are voiced, sisterhood challenged, bonds formed and ultimately the meaning of friendship, community and freedom are explored.

Each performer has a decent voice and is given opportunities to take centre stage but Susan Birkenhead’s clunky, often uninteresting lyrics lack wit and invention so, often it is the unsung sections (Lily’s initiation to the beehives and learning about connections) which are strongest and most successful. Set to music by Duncan Sheik, when it comes to the songs, they are a fairly mixed bag with some fun and playful moments e.g. Zachary’s (Noah Thomas) song about his car Fifty-Five Fairlane which wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Grease, and Neil’s (Tarinn Callender) Marry Me which brings the show as close to ‘playful and endearing’ as it gets as he gets down on one knee for the umpteenth time to beg frosty June (Ava Brennan) to be his wife. Much of the remainder is over sung and incorporates excessive belting (which should be reined-in at a small venue), however August (Rachel John) delivers the show’s title song with great heart, style and panache.

Everything about Whitney White’s production - from Queen Jean’s A-line period dresses to the placement of props onto Soutra Gilmour’s revolving stage, suggests careful consideration, earnestness and a desire to treat the subject with due reverence. There are definitely a few gorgeous moments, but despite the civil rights significance as a subject backdrop the story struggles to find a realistic flow. The all-female support community (lifted from an actual Kenyan enclave - Umoja) serves as a neat parallel, but all too often the overtly melancholic tunes blend into each other with a bland sameness which screams out for greater wit, dynamism and erudition in the writing.

The Cast of The Secret Life Of Bees - Photo Credit Marc BrennerThe Cast of The Secret Life Of Bees - Photo Credit Marc Brenner