The Bee's Knees by William Stafford (Bum on a Seat)
When you behold a patchwork quilt, you see it at first as a whole. Then you might move on to look closely at individual patches, and then how they relate to their neighbours. Such is the fabric of Tiffany Hosking’s sweet and rich new play, named for the produce of Anwen’s bees, but quite easily the play could be renamed or subtitled, How To Make A Welsh Quilt.
Bossy Anwen (Vey Straker) focusses on making the quilt, piecing together hexagons (like a honeycomb!) while her husband is away. She hopes he is doing his job (defusing bombs!) rather than shacking up with another woman. Her 22-year-old son Caron (Callan Durrant) is autistic. He watches Happy Feet on repeat and expresses himself through idiosyncratic choreography (by Lizie Gireudeaux); meanwhile Anwen’s tattoo artist sister Celandine (Jemma Lewis) strives to help out, longing to be loved and for a child of her own. Also in the picture is their half-sister Armes (Jenni Lea Jones) whom Anwen shuns. Everyone is superb but Lea Jones really plucks at the heartstrings, and Lewis’s sardonic humour has us in stitches, so to speak. Durrant is a lovely mover, compelling in his silence, but Straker’s Anwen is the heart of the piece.
It’s a beautiful piece, beautifully played by all and the writing is gorgeous. Hosking also directs, stitching together a range of styles to make a cohesive whole. For the most part, it’s naturalistic albeit in a stylised setting: three stacks of boxes represent the beehives but these come apart and are reconfigured to suggest furniture and fixtures of different locations: a post office counter, for example, or tables in the pub… Characters address other characters that we don’t see or hear, in one-sided conversations. Most revealing, the characters will visit the bees to tell them their news and innermost thoughts (it’s a Thing, apparently), in monologues addressed to the audience. The action in non-linear but we piece together the timeline, the cause and effect of actions and events. Gentle drama laced with gentle humour becomes something quietly profound and ultimately touching. Caron discloses to the bees, in the only instance of him saying anything, that the very chemicals responsible for the decline of their kind may be responsible for the surge in autism – the play’s political point, there, but generally it’s about family and community and connections. It has much to do with tradition but also feels completely fresh and of the now. I adored it and audiences should swarm to see it.
The play begins and ends with the same scene: Anwen proudly displaying the completed quilt to the bees, wrapping the story in a neat package and making the show as warming as any such blanket.