Review: The Green Fairy, Union Theatre

New musical The Green Fairy is a bleak but bold experience at the Union Theatre, featuring the unmissable, almighty voice of Julie Atherton

“So how are you, aside from being an alcoholic”

The Green Fairy announces itself as “a queer pub musical” which sounds like a genre that should have existed for years already and certainly feels like one rich with potential. And in the hands of debut musical writers Jack Sain (book, music and lyrics) and Stephen Libby (lyrics) together with dramaturg Hannah Hauer-King, it proves intriguing, even if the final effect is considerably more Once than Old Compton Street.

Which is a good thing because this musical fully embraces its intimate actor-musician ensemble and  in a still all-too-rare occurrence, focuses on the L (or perhaps the B) in LGBT+. It is open mic night at newly refurbished pub The Green Fairy and knowing her estranged daughter is going to be singing, Jo turns up to the place where she used to work and live and drink, and where the ghosts of her past – her girlfriend, her husband, her childhood best friend – still linger on.

And being ever so fond of a drink, who else should be Jo’s spirit guide (badumtish) than the green fairy who lives in the bottle of absinthe (you know, like Kylie in Moulin Rouge). There’s something a lot grittier here though, as the roots of Jo’s alcoholism and isolation are traced through a riotous time as a young adult in the 90s which somehow never quite stopped, even as friends, lovers, children, dropped away. 

Fairly heavy-going then, and there’s a brave choice to really not sugar-coat Jo’s character at all. The ever-marvellous Julie Atherton plays her with a real astringency, never looking for sympathy in her portrayal of a woman whose alcohol addiction has left her teetering on the edge of the abyss. And that voice! It’s a real thrill to witness it up close and personal like this and the Act 1 closer is the stuff musical theatre dreams are made of.

Around her are some sickeningly talented young people. Emma Whittaker as excellent as the younger incarnation of Jo, is amazing on both cello and violin and as if that wasn’t enough, produces a saxophone at one point to make us all ashamed of ourselves! Georgina Hellier is also highly impressive as she constantly flicks between the playful titular sprite and Jo’s slinky ex, she definitely establishes herself as a boldly charismatic actor and singer.

Creatively, Katharine Heath’s pared-back set allows Alex Lewer’s intelligent and informative lighting to take the lead on moving us back and forth through time. And William Bullivant’s musical direction is well attuned to the almost folkiness of the emotional score. Ultimately, the book would benefit from fleshing out some of its subsidiary characters a bit more – Jo’s daughter Wendy barely features in the end (though Emma Kinney is cool on the bass) – but there’s more than enough here to merit a trip to The Green Fairy. Mine’s a double…

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Jack Sain
The Green Fairy is booking at the Union Theatre until 23rd November

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