I wasn’t the biggest fan of the writing but the musical performances are the saving grace in The Secret Life of Bees at the Almeida Theatre
“Hurt just one, you hurt us all“
WIth Lynn Nottage writing its book and Duncan Sheik its score, The Secret Life of Bees certainly has great pedigree but in Whitney White’s production here for the Almeida, it doesn’t quite ignite into the kind of musical you rave about. Instead, you’re left in undoubted admiration for some top-quality vocal performances and a niggling doubt that this isn’t a story necessarily best served by the transformation into a musical.
Set in South Carolina in the summer of 1964 where the Civil Rights movement finally burgeoning, the lives of young women Lily and Rosaleen are inextricably entwined. Lily’s father is abusive and as his violence extends to their Black housekeeper Rosaleen, they plot to escape temporarily to a community of bee-keeping sisters. In finding comfort there, their stay becomes extended but secrets from the past and the ongoing turbulence of the present inevitably make things sticky.
Based on Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, Nottage’s book has a measured slowness about it which doesn’t really translate to musical theatre. For all the spiritual awakening that takes place in this new venue, there’s a whole lot of dramatic treading water which extends the production unnecessarily. Sheik’s score delights in its eclecticism but it does feel like Susan Birkenhead’s lyrics don’t have enough to say to justify the number of songs.
However, with a company of this quality at hand, it doesn’t really matter too much if the material is a little aimless. Abiona Omonua’s Rosaleen is a corker of a performance in its melting sternness, Noah Thomas’ farmhand Zachary is hugely appealing and Rachel John continues her ascendancy into one of our finest musical theatre performers as head beekeeper August. There are considerably worse ways to spend an evening in a theatre, but you do also feel there’s more potential here.