Review by Daz Gale
There’s a real buzz at the Almeida Theatre at the moment – not for the first time this year. Following the phenomenal success of their revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, currently playing to packed houses in the West End, they are hoping for another hit with the UK premiere of The Secret Life Of Bees. But will this one bee another hit for them or will this put a stinger on their recent sensational streak?
Based on the 2001 novel by Sue Monk Kidd, turned into a movie in 2008, The Secret Life Of Bees tells the story about a group of women in 1964 South Carolina. Rosaleen is fighting for her right to vote and Lily is escaping her violent father. As they are taken in by the Boatwright sisters, they learn the power of sisterhood and friendship, all while trying to discover the truth about the past while simultaneously fighting for a better future.
Lynn Nottage reimagines Sue Monk Kidds novel for the stage with exceptional writing, bringing the key elements from the much-loved story (with a bit of deviation from the original story – no spoilers) and ensuring it lands with the same impact both the novel and movie had. The story plays out with ease, jumping back and forth from the more serious and uncomfortable moments in the show dealing with abuse, violence and racism to the more joyful moments interspersed throughout. The jolting between these extreme contrasts never feels jarring which is a testament to the brilliance of the writing.
Soutra Gilmours set design transports the audience to South Carolina making full use of the Almeida’s small but versatile space. With brilliant use of a revolve and some surprise elements that transform the stage as it progresses, it creates a beautiful visual to accompany the story while feeling the right kind f stripped back as to not overpower from the storytelling itself. Whitney White doesn’t put a foot wrong with gloriously realised direction using cast members in lieu of set pieces. In one pivotal moment, we don’t need to see cars to realise the looming danger of approaching police officers. Shelley Maxwells choreography is superb in the bigger moments but lacks the impact in some of the shows smaller moments.
Undoubtedly one of the most exciting aspects of The Secret Life Of Bees is its music. Duncan Sheik (responsible for the masterpiece that Is Spring Awakening) has his music accompanied by Susan Birkenheads lyrics to create a new songbook that feels destined to become a classic. With a variety of influences present including gospel and soul,there are several moments throughout where not only do they take us to church, they bring church to theatre. The rousing ‘Tek A Hol a My Sol’ is among the greatest sequences I have witnessed on stage in a long time while act one finale ‘Our Lady Of Chains’ is another sensational highlight. Inspirational music is accompanied by inspired moments where the cast sing acapella, creating powerful theatre magic at its finest.
The music is one of the two strongest elements of The Secret Life Of Bees – the other being its magnificent cast. Full of names many will be familiar with due to their theatre credits in recent years. It is seemingly led by Lily (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) and Rosaleen (Abiona Omuna). Together, they drive the story forward and display a beautiful chemistry together. Eleanor gives a beautifully sensitive portrayal of Lily in a nuanced performance, bringing out all the complexities in her character as she battles her own demons.
Abiona Omuna is an early favourite as Rosaleen with early number ‘Sign My Name’ setting the bar high for her story for the woman determined to vote, despite people trying to stop her. However, she seems to be relegated to the sidelines when the action moves and feels largely forgotten about. This felt frustrating as her character had a lot more potential had it been explored more on stage. Instead, it became all about Lilys story with Rosaleen feeling like a supporting character throughout.
While the poster may make it seem like the show is all about Lily and Rosaleen, this is very much an ensemble story with other characters playing significant roles and feeling more like leading players than Rosaleens ends up. This is down to the casting of three of the very finest performers in the West End as the three Boatwright sisters – Danielle Fiamanya as May, Ava Brenann as June and Rachel John as August.
Danielle Fiamanya continues to show her versatility as an actress having played Winnie Mandela and Elsa in Frozen in the past 12 months. As May, she has a lot less to do by comparison and has substantially the smallest role of the three sisters as the quietest one, battling serious depression. The way Danielle still manages to captivate despite having far fewer lines speaks volumes for her talents, and thankfully we get to hear her gorgeous vocals more in the second act.
Rachel John is always incredible in any role she touches, but she may well have bested herself with her turn as August. Motherly and nurturing, she gives a warm and commanding performance, taking the audience to church with her world class vocals. Her interactions with her fellow cast makes her feel like the heart of the story though perhaps this is more to do with Rachels own talents. Leaving nothing on that stage, she has delivered without a doubt a career best performance.
The standout performance for me belonged to Ava Brennan as the far more brash of the sisters, June. With different layers to unravel, June goes on the biggest journey of the three thanks in part to her own love story. As we see the characters walls fall down slowly, Ava gives a masterclass performance in a role that is played with authenticity and sensitivity. As well as remarkable acting, she also gets several opportunities to showcase her incredible singing voice with the moments she goes toe to toe with Rachel John without a doubt the greatest vocals you are likely to hear.
While The Secret Live Of Bees undoubtedly belongs to the women in the story, some fantastic West End male performers return to the stage to shine in what may be smaller roles than they are used to. Noah Thomas gives a sweet turn as Zachary, showing some breath-taking dance moves in his big number ‘Fifty-Five Fairlane’ feeling like something out of Grease. Tarinn Callender is an absolute highlight as Neil, bringing the comedy in a role that truly makes the most of his comparatively limited stage time. His soulful solo ‘Marry Me’ made us all fall in love with him.
The beauty of the casting of this show is in the group dynamic. Feeling hard to pinpoint who the true star of the show is, the themes of sisterhood prevalent in The Secret Life Of Bees feel even more authentic thanks to the camaraderie of its truly impressive cast. The moments where the women come together in song or on dance feel incredibly real, thanks to the calibre of performers on hand.
What makes The Secret Life Of Bees work so well is in the way it handles its themes. The challenges of what is going on in 1964 plays out naturally with the theme of racist attitudes towards these women fighting to be treated equally always prominent but only one of the key themes at hand. The topic of mental health is touched upon through several of the characters, though disappointingly this wasn’t as fleshed out as I would have liked. They had an opportunity to really deep dive into the complex issues in a way that isn’t tackled on stage often – I believe that was the only real thing missing from the show. Overall, it is about the ongoing quest for salvation and the way it manages to bring faith and prayer in to the mix without feeling preachy is another key to the shows success.
Seeing a new musical on stage is always exciting. When one is as fantastic as this, it reminds me why I love theatre so much. Consistently strong from start to finish, there are repeated moments of brilliance in The Secret Life Of Bees. The writing and the truly incredible music matched with a world class cast make this something really special. This is an amazingly strong UK debut for the show and one I’m sure we won’t be seeing the last of. The secret’s out – this show really is beeautiful.
The Secret Life Of Bees plays at Almeida Theatre until 27th May. Tickets from almeida.co.uk
Photos by Marc Brenner