I love honey, and the little yellow jackets that craft it so carefully (much to the disappointment of my vegan mother), AND I love Lynn Nottage’s glowing version of Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel. I love Duncan Sheik’s busy bombastic music and Susan Birkenhead’s buzzing lyrics, I love Whitney White’s delicious directing, and the whole cast, crew, and set. Love love love love.
That’s it, scroll on, turn the page, the review is done… you can all go home now…
Well not quite! I must explain what I love surely? Having well and truly laid my cards on the table and showed an Achilles heel of emotion rather than the hard insect facts I’m meant to deal in. but theatre is as much subjective and guttural as it is theoretical and practical.
Set in freedom summer, 1964 in the American South, the novel (and therefore musical) follows Rosaleen (Abiona Omonua) and Lily (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) as they flee the oppressive atmosphere of a deeply racist society and abusive families respectively. Both affected differently by the growing movement of civil rights and the battle against segregation.
Finding refuge from their persecutors in the bee-keeping honey church of the Boatwright sisters. What follows is a tale of friendship, sisterhood, reliance, and history, swollen with sweet music and outstanding talent.
Soutra Gilmour’s set transforms the medium-sized Almeida into a wide hot cornfield. We have waving tall grass at the back, and a spinning semi-circle in the middle with the altar to the bee church rising up under illuminated barn supports. Neil Austin douses the space in a bucket of orange of yellow light, the cruel summer heat, and the band hiding stage right bellow out their jangling rhythms.
Similar to the real-life Umoja village in Kenya, this matriarchal world created by the sisters is a haven from the hard and hateful one surrounding it. Like with the village an income, honey in this case, for the Samburu women’s jewellery, enables freedom for the inhabitants. What maintains this world within a world is strength, spirit, and a whole lot of singing, and buzzing (in the case of the musical).
The pillars of this soft cult carry the sumptuous music with little effort, cooly captivating with ranges and textures of voice rarely experienced. Rachel John is August, the head and heart, and main voice in the eponymous song that will soothe your very being of ailments from insomnia to anxiety. Ava Brennan is June, harsh, and hurt from a life of disappointment, with a voice that could cut glass, or smash open a hive (Somebody stop me?). Lastly, we have Danielle Fiamanya as May. Mourning the loss of her sister April, she is distracted, with a voice dripping again in pain but with mental confusion sprouting throughout. The fates, the Supremes, the rule of three proves correct once again in these mighty performers.
Both Worthington-Cox and Omonua are charming runaways with very different vocal veins. Worthington-cox’s Lily doesn’t have the blast of other performers around her; however, her warbling tone fits the character marvellously. She also delivers one of the most layered performances acting-wise. While on the other side, Omonua’s abrasive anger can be felt in all the earlier songs burning and biting, anger at a world unfairly pitted against her. The way the different colour of their skin affects their journeys through the segregated South causes the expected friction, upsetting the little world.
We have confident baddies in Lily’s father T-Ray played menacingly by Mark Meadows, although the main evil is the systemic racism that engulfs and threatens to drown the sisters and their chosen family. Loves are lost and won, songs are sung and tears are let fall from weakened eyes (whose we will never know).
“a symphony of wings, in a thousand different keys, mysterious and wonderful, the secret life of bees” is a story steeped in the heat and horror of the early days of the civil rights movement but with an urgent message for our current warming and woeful world. If music is a balm for the soul, Then The Almeida’s adaption is the royal jelly we all need. Heal me, mysterious, and wonderful indeed, The secret life of bees.
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