‘A hopeful & meaningful night’: THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES – Almeida Theatre

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Almeida Theatre, London – until 27 May 2023

In 2015, Lynn Nottage wrote one of the most important plays of the 21st century, Sweat, a searing examination of class division, economic depression and the forgotten communities of former industrial towns, a play that, when it came to the Donmar Warehouse in 2017, said as much about contemporary Britain as it did about the US rust belt states where it was set. Four years later and the writer lent her sharp understanding of social forces and their political purpose to a musical adaptation of Su Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees, which now arrives at the Almeida Theatre, that puts women’s experience of civil rights at the heart of a politically complex but nonetheless uplifting show about runaway companions escaping their small-minded, male-dominated, racist town to find solace in a private community of honey-making worshipers of a black madonna.

Nottage adds a sharp edge to a sometimes sentimental novel working with Duncan Sheik, the composer of Spring Awakening which the Almeida revived to considerable acclaim at the end of 2021, emphasising the positioning of this tale on the cusp of a new era, where the possibility of a better, more equitable future chafes against a traditional and hate-filled past that still seeks to order society by race and gender, retaining power in the hands of white men prepared to employ violent means to protect their supremacy. Like Hairspray before it, Nottage draws out this important socio-political commentary while Sheik’s extraordinary songs with lyricist Susan Birkenhead combine funk, gospel, folksy rock and a hint of blues that carries the unusual plot along and makes you root for this powerful group of women determined to live their lives as equals.

Like Sweat, Nottage emphasises the dangers of trying to hide from the outside world, of the inevitability of reality intruding even in the calmest and most secluded forms of paradise. The contrast between the state of semi-urban 1960s America that this creative team showcase and the rural idyll among the beekeeping women living on a kind of commune led by August (along with sisters May and June) is stark, but there is no stopping the backdrop of racial segregation and Southern violence coming between them, placing the women in the midst of personal as well as socio-political challenges. And it is a balance that this new Almeida production, directed by Whitney White, manages pretty well, and while Monk Kidd’s plot often seems underdeveloped, the impact of those songs successfully knocks your socks off.

During the course of the show, that external world is brought into the quiet community as runaways Rosaleen, a black maid, and Lily, the white teenager she protects, seek refuge, challenging the women’s ability to live apart and bringing additional strife to their door. And while Act One presents a rosy picture, Act Two reveals a darker side, as the new arrivals and the audience learn more about the reasons this community of women exists along with the attacks, humiliations and losses they have already endured. Nottage’s book and Birkenhead’s lyrics draw out a longer history of suffering that shapes individual, collective, generational and community identity in this story, helping to temper the sweet simplicity of The Secret Life of Bees messaging and instead turn it into a rousing and even moving declaration of intent.

The frame for this 1964-set story is the opportunity for black women to vote for the first time, something that the downtrodden Rosaleen is setting out to do at the start of the show, a display of enfranchisement in which she is determined to Sign My Name. It is a full-blooded opener and a chance to reference some of the key personalities that made it theoretically possible including President Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, while later a character is reading essays by James Baldwin. And the growing political awareness of these women is a thread that runs through the play as a violent altercation prevents Rosaleen from expressing her newly won democratic right and gives her a reason to leave, while later reluctant to face a similar threat the community briefly demur. But, like the Pankhursts in Sylvia and Motormouth Mable in Hairspray, the sisters and their friends determine to make a stand together and finally fulfill their electoral role.

But there are other kinds of political comment working through this musical that explores the difficulties that Lily’s arrival repeatedly creates for her companions. June warns of the danger that Lily’s presence poses, eager to be rid of her and to make her stay as short as possible. It is notable too that the attack on Rosaleen takes place because she is walking through the town with Lily which draws attention to them and makes her a target. This is mirrored in Act Two when Zachary and Lily leave the commune to deliver honey and are stopped by the police, the presence of a white girl in his car posing an added danger to his freedom and his life. This deeply embedded and systemic racism in American society comes out in other ways as well, as the sisters sing of their endurance while the circumstances surrounding the death of the fourth Boatwright sibling April becomes a symbol of the chains they are trying to throw off.

This all takes place at this moment of change in which the old ways are being overridden and a new hope emerges, one that The Secret Life of Bees clings to throughout and leaves as its lasting message, so however challenging the musical becomes, and there is physical violence, child abuse and offensive language, the outcome is always to see a brighter future. These two thoughts the dark and the light work quite nicely together in White’s production, never becoming too sickly sweet but also refusing to wallow in the hopelessness and misery of these endless cycles of suffering. And it is here that Nottage’s influence comes to the fore, drawing on her work in Sweat to tighten up the broader purpose of this story and expand on the feeling of disenfranchised powerlessness that affects ordinary working people as opportunity shuts down. And while they may be fighting for different things at different times, the industrial community and this women’s beekeeping commune are not so far apart, each seeking recognition, to be seen by others and counted as equals. It’s an approach that brings great humanity to these characters and while the 2 hour and 30 minute running time may only provide a surface engagement with many of these issues, the cumulative effect is nonetheless emotive.

Sheikh and Birkenhead’s songs are tremendous, a series of ferocious anthems that work well together, supporting the narrative arc while also providing powerful insight into character need and the challenges and pain that shape their collective and individual identity. It is through song, rather than dialogue that character depth emerges, showcasing Rosaleen’s determination to assume her right to vote as well as staging the argument song between June and August who debate Lily’s presence among them. The worship of the black madonna also has a couple of lively and high tempo numbers that explain their faith while some sweet romance songs offer a different kind of optimism for the future. All of this is supported by Shelley Maxwell’s excellent choreography that eschews big song and dance approaches that take the audience outside of the story and draws movement from character instead, creating patterns of dance as individuals lose themselves in the excitement of their prayer or the possibility of first love.

Staged on a broad set with a revolving segment used sparingly to indicate tension or movement, Soutra Gilmour’s stage is surrounded by long grasses that evoke the South, a largely representative space that becomes the kitchen of Lily’s original home, the dusty roads of the town as well as the serene Eden of August’s exclusive retreat with its prayer-house-like gazebo holding the central figure of the black Madonna. Gilmour creates a sense that the characters are always outside, part of the natural world to which they tend while giving an impression of roasting summer sun that slowly turns to autumn as the story unfolds. Neil Austin’s lighting has quite a range here from golden afternoons that Rosaleen basks in to the oppressive red and orange blaze of heat that forces them all into the shade and even lowering that brightness every time the shadowy presence of the angry men threaten their harmony, supporting the emotional changes of pace as local tensions also simmer over.

The bees themselves are implied, a set of hives and honey frames eked out by Simon Baker’s swarm sounds that vary the intensity of the activity as Lily becomes more used to the behaviour of the creatures and tries to calm them, alongside a broader soundscape of subtle birdsong and rural sounds that support context creation and staging choices. Whitney’s direction is smooth, allowing scenes to flow quickly that carry the story along and build an interesting tension between the women and the interjection of the outside world that is inevitably in store for them. And Whitney makes space for the musical performances as the heart of this piece in which individual characters come more clearly into view.

There is considerable talent on display in The Secret Life of Bees and across the performances there is astonishing vocal depth and range from everyone involved. But it is a collective performance, one that gives equal space to all of the voices, creating a kind of harmony in performance that allows the audience to enjoy and understand each character perspective. From determined Rosaleen refusing to be pushed around by her employer or the men determined to limit her future to the calm and angel-like August commanding respect and loyalty from those around her, kindly May and ferocious June hiding a softer heart beneath her harsh exterior, while the broken and nervy Lily whose powerful voice starts to emerge as her confidence grows, along with the sweet neighbour who, like Tommy Trafford in An Ideal Husband, comes to propose to June every couple of weeks. The vocal performances including Abiona Omonua, Rachel John, Danielle Fiamanya, Ava Brennan and Eleanor Worthington-Cox are outstanding, along with excellent support from Noah Thomas and Tarinn Callender.

The source material for The Secret Life of Bees may have a perhaps overly simplistic plot and limited character development but Nottage, Sheikh and Birkenhead have done much to bring this story to life through the much more grounded civil rights frame and ongoing challenges faced by working communities, while the music brings a real soulful and impassioned perspective that builds audience engagement. Whitney’s production for the Almeida has its moments of sentiment but it is never a passive experience, ultimately delivering a hopeful and meaningful night.

The Secret Life of Bees runs at the Almeida Theatre until 27 May with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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Maryam Philpott on RssMaryam Philpott on Twitter
Maryam Philpott
Maryam Philpott has run the London-based Cultural Capital blog since 2013, predominantly reviewing theatre, but also exhibitions and special film screenings with a more in-depth and discursive approach. Since 2014, Maryam has also written regularly for The Reviews Hub, reviewing all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End, as well as contemporary dance, ballet and opera. She has a background in social and cultural history, and tweets as @culturalcap1.

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