Get us in your inbox


The Secret Life of Bees

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • 3 out of 5 stars
The Secret Life of Bees, Almeida Theatre, 2023
Photo: Marc Brenner

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Classy but ponderous musical adaptation of the smash hit Civil Rights-era novel

Rich and sweet but slow as dripping honey, this musical version of Sue Monk Kidd’s hit novel ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ has been crafted by a prodigious number of extremely talented individuals, notably ‘Spring Awakening’ man Duncan Sheik – who wrote the songs – and ‘Sweat’ playwright Lynn Nottage – who wrote the script. And it’s good, but it never crosses over into brilliance. While I’ve not read the book I was left with the impression of a story too ponderous to really work as a musical, and lacking a great protagonist. 

It’s South Carolina, the summer of 1964, and as the Civil Rights era gets into full swing, many Black people in the state are preparing to head to the polls in the teeth of ferocious opposition from angry whites. 

One is Rosaleen (Abiona Omonua), best friend of and family maid to Lily (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a nervous young white woman whose life has been made very difficult by her father T Ray, who openly blames her for the death of her mother ten years ago. 

Tough and determined, Rosaleen heads out to vote with Lily accompanying her, but after they’re assaulted by racists – and offered zero sympathy by T Ray – they decide to run away. Their destination is a mysterious Black-run honey farm that Lily’s mum once enigmatically sent her a postcard from. 

Musically, there’s an awful lot to like here: Sheik’s songs are very nice, running the gamut from vibrant indie-folk to lush, horn-drenched funk. If it’s not exactly earworm central a la ‘Spring Awakening’, the wonderfully catchy second half opener ‘Jack Palance’ seems calculated to address this, an immaculate ‘60s girl group banger that’s tangential to the plot but does an enormous amount for the vibes.

However, Sheik, Nottage and lyricist Susan Birkenhead’s mostly commendable avoidance of crass melodrama leaves US director Whitney White’s UK premiere production lacking in. firepower. Once the girls have arrived at the honey farm – run by Rachel John’s motherly August Boatwright –  things really slow down. The refusal of either Lily or anyone at the farm to move the plot along by discussing the fact her mother had stayed there never really feels justified. Meanwhile, I’m not sure either Birkenhead’s lyrics or White’s staging quite capture what the book is trying to say about the women’s spirituality - the climax of the first half, when Rosaleen gives herself over to the redemptive power of the group’s Black Madonna statue, looks like it’s meant to be rapturous but is in fact merely enthusiastic.

Abiona is excellent as the steely but kind Rosaleen, and Noah Thomas has a real quicksilver magnetism to him as Zachary, a gifted young man with dreams of bigger things who works at the farm. But I was never sure about Worthington-Cox’s Lily - she mostly drifts around looking a bit terrified while other people do the talking. Even though her story is the focal point, she never feels like main character. The book is now 22 years old, and I wonder if an understandable wariness to centralise a white character in a story about Black people in the Civil Rights era has left the show a bit rudderless. 

With its honied musical textures, rich lighting, some beautiful design from Soutra Gilmour – I could look at the honeycombs all day – and heartfelt intersectionalism, ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ has a lot going for it. But slow pacing and a muted protagonist means it never gets out of first gear – worth you time, but as bees go it’s more bumble than killer.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£15-£58. Runs 2hr 45min
You may also like
You may also like
Bestselling Time Out offers