DIVA delves behind the scenes of this immersive, queer pub musical and meets leading actor, Julie Atherton


Just last week, I was lucky enough to take a sneak peek behind the scenes (and during rehearsals) of the upcoming “immersive pub musical”, The Green Fairy due to run at the Union Theatre in London throughout November 2019.

Now, I’m no musical theatre buff. In fact, I only made it through half of Jesus Christ Superstar and, despite having lived in London for a couple of years, I’ve only just booked in my first West End-shaped date at the end of November. Still, The Green Fairy, a time-hopping, female-led “ode to queer parenting and overcoming anxiety” caught my eye.

And, what better way to open my mind to the, in fact, oh-so-multifaceted world of musical theatre than by chatting to one of the UK’s most prolific representatives of the art form, aka actor and fellow northerner, Julie Atherton…

Behind the scenes of The Green Fairy. Photograph Jack Sain.

DIVA: Hello Julie, thanks for letting me sneak into rehearsals. It seems like The Green Fairy’s going to be quite the bittersweet tale, (which I’m totally into, by the way) is that a fair reading?

JULIE ATHERTON: Yeah, I love the fact that it’s real; that it’s not a fairy tale at all. It’s not a happy ending, it’s about the dark side of relationships and families, really. It’s about how we all think, “Wait, we’re not this happy family that’s on the TV,” and wonder, “Are we normal?” And yet it’s so normal to be bored of each other and to question societal norms. Things like, is monogamy really for everyone and do we have to conform? 

Absolutely. Now, you play lead character Jo who is visited by a “green fairy” and gives Jo a chance to look back over her life. What’s Jo like?

A bit of an alcoholic. She has undiagnosed depression, and possibly had postnatal depression [after having her daughter, Wendy] which went undiagnosed at the time because it wasn’t talked about openly in the 90s. Now, [post-natal depression] would be diagnosed. You can Google it and, at the very least, find support networks. Instead, Jo was left feeling so alone. I think a lot of people did back then, like, “There’s something wrong with me and nobody else is going through this.”  

Is the play – during its many flashbacks – set in a specific year in the 90s?

Well, Jo’s 40 years old in present day 2019, but when she looks back, it’s 1997 – when she was 18 years old.

Who’s this play for?

It’s a really universal story when you get into it. Jo’s working in the pub, partying too much and then she has her daughter, Wendy. She numbs her pain with alcohol. When she was younger, she didn’t realise that she was depressed. At the beginning of the play, it’s the present day and, by then, Jo has a terrible relationship with her daughter. It’s at this point that she tries to think about that relationship and what she can do, but she really doesn’t know how. And there enters the character, the Green Fairy – from the Absinthe bottle.

Is the Green Fairy a hallucination of Jo’s?

Basically, yes. Jo’s passed out on the couch – she’s probably talking to herself in the pub, bringing up all of these memories. You know when you have a vivid dream and wake up and you’re kind of “different” after it? It’s like that.

What was it about the narrative that made you want to get involved?

The fact that it wasn’t this “happy fairy tale”. Jo is questioning her sexuality and her mental health and that is really interesting to play. 

How does LGBTQI parenting feature in the play? 

It’s less about the physical representation of LGBTQI parenting because, Liza, the girl Jo falls in love with has nothing to do with parenting Wendy, it’s more about the want for it. 

Why is it important to you to represent women and non-hetero sexualities?

I think it should always be explored because we’ve got enough of the other story. We’re a little bit tired of that, you know? Women need to rule the world for a bit now.

I listened to a podcast you did back in 2018 where you discussed gender imbalance in theatre, have things changed since then?

It’s trying. It’s very funny when the privileged people get uncomfortable now, saying, “It seems that if you’re a straight, white male you can’t get anything nowadays!” Well, welcome! It’s really uncomfortable sometimes talking about things we don’t want to talk about, but I think now we’re all prodding, especially the new generation. The older generations are a bit like, “Why is everybody complaining? It was fine the way it was.” It was fine for you maybe but now we’re all going to have to be uncomfortable for a bit until the shit happens and we’ve spoken about everything, then it’ll be fair.

Is there a core message to be taken from The Green Fairy?

That it’s okay to not be okay. It’s alright to hot have all the answers and you don’t have to conform to other people’s ideals. Just be yourself.

Julie Atherton, who plays Jo in The Green Fairy, behind the scenes. 2019. Photograph Jack Sain.

And, before we wrap things up, how is it for you – being a full-time actor? Are you able to focus solely on the creative side of your work?

There’s so much that comes with it. Being an actor, a creative… It begins with finding a job, of course. Self-promotion I have a problem with – I’m northern, after all. It’s the worst to have to say, “I’m amazing!” I still don’t like that egotistical side of things. I love what I do, of course, but it’s a real struggle being an actor. Everybody wants to do it and there’s always someone ready to take your place. 

Sounds familiar. Do you meet many people who have preconceived notions about musical theatre (like I certainly did in the past)?

There is a snobbery about musical theatre. I’ve come across that a lot. When people say, “Oh, I don’t like musicals”, they just haven’t seen the right one, because it’s like saying, “I don’t like films”, or “I don’t like music”. There is a musical for you, you just haven’t found it yet! Not all musical theatre is Marry Poppins. That’s just one style of it. There’s new stuff. It doesn’t help that the old “twee” classics keep getting repeated and repeated and repeated because people are scared to see new things and that’s the biggest problem with musical theatre. Film moves on, music and art, but with musical theatre it’s like, “Let’s go and see Oklahoma… again! We really must see another show about when women were oppressed.” 

Cheers to that. Any last words on The Green Fairy, before we let you get back to it?

Come and see it! Even if you don’t like musicals – it’s not Oklahoma, women aren’t oppressed in this one.

The Green Fairy is on at Union Theatre, London, from 30 October-23 November 2019. For tickets click here.

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