There is a relieving lack of bees at The Almeida.

Credit: Marc Brenner

Secret Life of Bees, written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Whitney White, is a musical based off the book by Sue Monk Kidd, coming to London from off-Broadway. Unsurprisingly for the Almeida, the stage is impressively set by Soutra Gilmour. Dry, yellowed grass lines the back, the framing of a house is at the centre, and the sound of cicadas fill the theatre. The revolving stage signifies scene and location changes, as well as the passage of time. There are moments of breath-taking beauty, such as when the golden (and sometimes purple) honey slates are pulled out their boxes and when the cast holds lit-up jars of honey above their heads. 

Duncan Sheik’s music and Susan Birkenhead’s lyrics are what make this show remarkable. I don’t think there was a single song that didn’t give me goosebumps. I could watch ‘Tek a Hol a My Sol’ over and over, where the Daughters of Mary (Madeline Charlemagne, Shekinah McFarlane, Christine Symone) give the most passionate performance I have ever seen. Their fervent sung prayers and spirited dancing (choreographed by Shelley Maxwell) enraptured and stunned me. I really forgot about everything that existed outside of that one scene. It is absolutely criminal they don’t have a cast recording released. Everyone’s voice is powerful and stunning, and notably Eleanor Worthington-Cox’s (Lily) voice is sweet and pure, her Southern accent dripping like honey. 

Credit: Marc Brenner

Being from the South myself, my suspension of disbelief held throughout the show, never hearing a slip-up or a hint of an English accent. Abiona Omonua is brilliant as the no-nonsense Rosaleen, her anthem ‘Sign My Name’ ringing through my ears. However, I was confused as to what their age gap and relationship is meant to be in the musical, as Rosaleen looks about the same age as Lily, whereas in the book she is a few decades older. Rachel John as August has consistent a twinkle in her eyes and shows an immediate tenderness for Lily, wisely and gently telling her the story of her mother. Danielle Fiamanya as May is exactly as I imagined her when I read the book, her face a window to how she is feeling at each moment. She is an innocent, kind, and sweet soul. Ava Brennan’s June is headstrong, stubborn, and stern. Though I appreciate she may have learned a few notes on the cello just for this performance, I couldn’t hear her as she was often overpowered by the band. At one point she was turned around and pretending to play while a separate cellist in the band played, which I found a bit cheap.

Credit: Marc Brenner

While I appreciate it’s impossible to fit every detail of a 336 page book into a two hour musical, a substantial amount of details, plot points, and themes were either tweaked or left completely out of the adaptation. I do wish a few gems were kept from the book: ‘Oh! Suzanna’ was never sung, and May’s wall (which is a beautiful coping mechanism and an instrumental part of her character) was never mentioned. I do wish Lily’s mom and May using graham crackers and marshmallows to lure cockroaches safely outside was kept, but May and Lily’s ‘Frogs and Fireflies’ duet is a very touching moment. A few major plot points were changed as well, including Lily immediately telling the Boatwright sisters her mother’s name, the reason for Zach’s arrest, and May’s survival.

The show leaves out a lot of hard truths presented in the book. It focuses less on character development and internal struggles, something so prominent in the novel. Though the music is extraordinary, the production is very song-heavy. If the songs had not taken up so much of the show, they would have been able to take their time with developing the themes and characters, instead of brushing through them. The result is a less impactful and powerful story, which is a real shame as the novel is so exquisite.

Credit: Marc Brenner

Though this adaptation results in an almost sung-overview of the story, it is an undeniably, outstandingly beautiful one.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Secret Life of Bees is on at the Almeida Theatre until the 27th of May. You can find tickets and info here!

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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