Since last March, going to the theatre – like, actually going to the theatre – has become a rare and magical experience. But even by that standard, there’s something truly enchanting about Queen Mab, the first show in Iris Theatre’s 2021 Summer Festival. Set in the beautiful gardens of the Actors’ Church in the heart of central London, this sweet story of friendship and self-discovery looks at the ups and downs of the last year through the eyes of two unlikely companions: fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Freya (Jo Patmore), and 500-year-old (give or take) fairy, Mab (Erica Flint).
If you think you recognise that name, it’s because a certain Mr Shakespeare mentioned her in one of his better-known plays. The fairies’ midwife has been bringing humans their dreams – both good and bad – for centuries, and she’s bored to tears. But then she meets Freya, who shows her new friend that we humans aren’t quite as predictable or uninteresting as she always thought. If only because we invented the wonder that is Swiss roll.
Danielle Pearson’s play never mentions the word Covid, but even so, lockdown looms large as Freya attempts to navigate her way into adulthood. Stuck at home with only her arguing parents and annoying little brother for company, she worries about what to study for her A-Levels and spends hours composing delightfully banal texts to her crush. In other words, she’s a normal teenager; she just happens to be living in distinctly abnormal times. Oh, and also her best friend’s a fairy.
As for Mab, she’s seen a few plagues in her time – but none quite like this one. Suddenly being able to hear the thoughts of mortals is more of a curse than a gift, especially when she accidentally learns something that threatens her new friend’s happiness. Caught in a complex web of human pain, fear and loneliness, she finds herself actually caring about what happens to us for the first time in hundreds of years, but just as powerless as anyone else to make it stop.
Most of the action in Georgie Staight’s production takes place in Freya’s home, and Isobel Nicolson’s bedroom set captures a snapshot of a teenage girl’s life, with books, clothes and musical instruments scattered around. But the circular outdoor space also has the feel of a fairy grotto, with a tree stump at dead centre which Mab uses to great dramatic effect.
The two actors are wonderful, sparking off each other in interactions that feel completely natural from their first encounter. As Freya, Jo Patmore is instantly likeable, with that blend of confidence and vulnerability that perfectly encapsulates a girl on the cusp of becoming a young woman. She also has a stunning singing voice, which is showcased as she serenades Ollie, in a performance so convincing I found myself frequently glancing up at his non-existent window, expecting to see him there watching.
Erica Flint is a delight to watch as Mab, her sharp tongue and dismissive tone soon slipping away to reveal a funny, caring soul who’s long been hiding her own secret pain. At one point, she asks Freya if clapping for the NHS will make a difference – a not unreasonable question from a fairy – and even the most cynical among us can’t help but be moved by her fragile optimism. If only it were that simple.
It’s hard to imagine a feel-good pandemic story, but somehow Queen Mab manages to be just that. Although it’s not always a happy tale, both characters find their way through, and emerge on the other side stronger and with a greater awareness of what’s important to them. And after the year we’ve all just lived through, that feels like more than enough of a happy ending.
Queen Mab is at the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden until 26th June.