The Secret Life of Bees ★★★★ Almeida Theatre | Apr 8 - May 27, 2023

Sweet but not cloying, The Secret Life of Bees is set in the American south in 1964, and it deals with the racial relations that are addressed and stressed by President Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act. Lily, a young white girl, is abused by her father and eventually decides to flee accompanied by her only friend, the black servant, Rosaleen. They find refuge at an unusual bee farm presided over by three sisters who take inspiration from a black Madonna. The story is a vision of support and empowerment that comes from a community which stands together united in the face of an outside world riddled with bigotry and hatred. Based on Sue Monk Kidd's novel, which was later made into a film, this musical version of the story does a fine job of capturing the mood of the original and simplifying the narrative. Duncan Sheik's score and Susan Birkenhead's lyrics cleverly pay homage to various musical genres, with folk, soul, blues and gospel elements infusing the show. From the opening number, "River Of Melting Sun (Hot)" we are situated in Lily and Rosaleen's world, and lighting designer, Neil Austin, bathes the stage in a golden haze that suggests the oppressive heat and social context from which the girls must escape. At times, the plot seems a bit predictable and the decision of August (Rachel John) to withhold the story of Lily's mother makes little sense. Ultimately however, this a show that is about the music. Terrific songs like "Tek a Hol a My Sol" and "Hold This House Together" simply carry the audience along. As Rosaleen, Abiona Omonua, is unforgettable with a wonderfully inspiring rendition of "Sign My Name," and each ensuing song successfully builds the drama and tension of the narrative. Counterbalancing Rachel John's formidable but nurturing August, Ava Brennan is totally convincing as sister June, the pessimist who sees how the outside world might invade the Eden of the bee farm. Brennan's interaction with Tarinn Callender's Neil provides great comic relief and her eventual decision to marry him and to engage the world mirrors the theme of the story. The Secret Life of Bees has a great score, some excellent acting and brilliantly evokes a time and place.

Rated: ★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Marc Brenner.

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