Feverish nightmares, child ghosts, tropical maladies, and lively sing-alongs. These are just some of the ingredients that make up La Mama’s production of The Girl Green As Elderflower. Taking Randolph Stow’s novel of the same name as a departure point, Richard Davies transforms the text into a delirious, touching and vibrant musical, directed by Sara Grenfell.
The story follows Cris (Billy Sloane), a young man who, after contracting a near-fatal tropical disease in the New Guinea islands, returns to a working class, 1960s Suffolk to recover. In the show’s first act, Cris spends his time playing with Ouija boards, Tarot cards, and Monopoly, sparking memorable performances from the melancholic and “eerie” Amabel (Chloe Bruer-Jones) and the paranormal Malkin (Alice Albon). He also encounters the American Jim (Christopher Coleman) in a pub, leading to a particularly jaunty musical number. Throughout these scenes, the production harks back to classic British kitchen sink realism – reflected particularly in the sparse, yet warm set – whilst
mixing in sheer surrealism, compounded by various musical and dream sequences.
Similarly, the production weaves moments of exuberance and joviality with moments of considerable darkness, as it touches on themes such as mental illness, sexuality, and cruelty. Perhaps the darkest moment occurs in the show’s second act, as a visit from Cris’ energetic old friend Matthew (superbly acted by Liam Dodds in perhaps the show’s standout performance) leads into a dream sequence that explores homosexuality, and the ways it is punished by society. Despite contending with such serious themes, the show in general maintains a positive, hopeful air. We believe that, throughout this journey, Cris is recovering from his illness (as physical as it is psychological), and that things will be ok.
Ultimately, the show triumphs as it creates a surreal, ethereal atmosphere, reminiscent of reality (and capable of exploring important real-life themes), but always with one foot in dreamland and the supernatural realm. In doing so, the show rejects traditional linear storytelling and sense-making, forcing us down into the rabbit hole of tropical illness with Cris, and leaving us as disoriented as he is, but also allowing us to recover and be renewed alongside him. I feel that this atmosphere, achieved through the use of lighting and staging as well as through the emotional ebbs and flows of the show’s music, is what makes the production so affecting and memorable.
Particular attention must also be paid to the music, which is as catchy as it is emotionally stirring. The whole cast contributes solid vocal performances, with Mirabel (Tori McCann) being especially impressive, and with live piano and guitar accompaniment from musical director Shelley Dunlop.
In conclusion, The Girl Green As Elderflower is a powerful, dreamlike, and ultimately somehow uplifting exploration of mental illness and recovery in Suffolk, carried by excellent performances and musical numbers.
La Mama’s production of The Girl Green As Elderflower ran at La Mama Courthouse from 20 — 31 March 2019.
Photography by Jodie Hutchinson