By Em Oliver
An intensely personal and heart shatteringly emotional play, When the Bees Come felt like an intimate glimpse into a family’s darkest shadows.
The complexity of each individual character and their nuanced interactions was where Cécil O’Brien’s script truly shone. The dinner table scenes in particular crackled with tension, manifested through both expertly paced dialogue and agonising silences. Watching Brundle as the Mother slop depressingly pale macaroni cheese onto the plates of her at times angry, at times fearful, at times desperate family, never got old. Brundle’s performance was a particular stand out, typifying the nuance afforded to each of O’Brien’s characters, both caring and cruel. As an audience, we were never certain where our sympathies were supposed to lie, a sign of a truly challenging piece of theatre.
The tangled relationships between the characters were delved into bravely by directors Olga Kwan and Kate Moore, an ambitious directorial debut for both. They should be congratulated on their sensitive handling of intensely emotional subject matter. Some scenes could have benefitted from clearer choices with blocking; the stage became cluttered in the scenes with more actors. I feel the cast will relax into their parts as the run progresses, and the show will only get stronger with more performances.
Georgia Malkin’s depiction of Hestia was masterful, continually natural and subtle whilst bringing a striking intensity to the vulnerable moments. Malkin’s performance did not diminish Hestia to a mere victim, her indomitable stage presence and sensitivity as an actress meant Hestia burned fiercely throughout. It could have been interesting to allow Malkin to colour the character with her own experiences of queerness, a luxury afforded by a student written script. ‘I don’t understand what the problem is. Just that everything is wrong.’ Hestia is stifled by their lack of language but somehow so eloquent in their silences, embodying the queer voice championed by this production.
Acting opposite Malkin’s naturalistic approach, Ellen Olley gave a compelling and entertaining performance as Randall. Her energy and characterization meant it was hard to look away, and, becoming something of a theme for the performances in this production, the sensitivity she brought to the role was often breathtaking. The relationship between the two siblings is treated with such a heartfelt reverence and tenderness that the moments between them offset the almost continual angst and conflict in the rest of the play. Strong ensemble work kept the energy consistent throughout. Much needed moments of lightness came especially from Milly Anderson and Ben Rook, both with impeccable comedic timing.
The main horror of this genre-defying production came from an often all encompassing feeling of loneliness, with Hestia’s ‘episodes’ exemplifying the isolation they feel from the mainstream. Through J Bhardwaj’s effective lighting design, we were able to experience Hestia’s otherness with striking visuals and sound design. Benjamin Southwick’s original music set an unnerving tone throughout, ensuring the continuing atmosphere between scenes. Though these scene changes were long, this was due to the intricate and ambitious set which was a perfect accompaniment to the stifling domestic scenes.
The Assembly Rooms Theatre allowed atmospheric technical choices but often compromised the intimacy of the action. The production feels like an intrusion into the characters’ lives, but, as so often happens in this theatre, the actors occasionally felt like they were shouting at us from across a great distance. The script seemed like it was written with a smaller, more intimate venue in mind, to exacerbate the unease of witnessing the internal workings of this dysfunctional family.
Nevertheless, When the Bees Come is exactly the kind of original student writing that should be celebrated and supported by Durham’s theatre scene. The diversity of the cast, the uniqueness of the voice, and the unadulterated emotion behind the story telling all set this play apart. The real tragedy was all the empty seats. This is the kind of theatre that Durham needs. It is a story that pierces through the echo chamber, it disrupts the conventional narrative.
The script’s acknowledgement of the audience and our complicity in continuing the societal gaze that Hestia feels so keenly was particularly chilling. The horror was shifted to an examination of how we perpetuate societal norms. About our fixation on outward appearances. About how we inherently fear that which is different from ourselves. The dynamics are intricate and constantly changing, sympathies shift, tragic details are uncovered. I was struck by the sheer ambition of the project, focussing on a young queer person desperately trying to navigate the turbulent waters of identity, family relationships, mental health, addiction and youth. The ultimate realisation that no one is coming to save you is set as a horrific climax, and yet we leave the theatre with hope. The message is empowering; you have to save yourself. Nothing is certain, apart from this.
When the Bees Come typifies the kind of fresh, thought-provoking theatre we have come to expect from First Theatre Company. Though lacking the polish and widespread appeal that more well-known commercial scripts have, this is truly a unique production that I would urge everyone to come and experience.
Come to be challenged. Come to be provoked. Come to be seen.
Image credit: First Theatre Company