Music and Lyrics: Lionel Bart
Book: Alun Owen
Director: Matthew Iliffe
Musical Director: Henry Brennan
Choreographer: Sam Spencer-Lane
Review by Peter Hoekstra-Bass and Sophia Halpin
When one hears of a revival of a musical that hasn’t seen the London stage for over fifty years, it is understandable to respond with a measure of scepticism. The stage is always hungry for vibrant musical productions, whether old or new, and five decades of West End silence do not speak well to a show’s calibre. The production at the Finborough Theatre proudly touts their season of Maggie May as the first professional UK production in over fifty years. I went in with moderated expectations.
Inspired by the folk ballad of the same name, Maggie May tells the story of two young lovers: Pat Casey, son and heir apparent of the once-and-future king of the docklands unionists, and Pat’s sweetheart – the titular heroine, a Liverpudlian sex worker-with-a-heart-of-gold. The show is unrepentantly political and working class, as most of the action is given over to the struggles of Casey and his friends against the establishment, personified in their corrupt union leader Willie Morgan.
While the refrains of “Solidarity Forever” seem to echo over almost every scene, the political backdrop of the story is rarely more than that, as the broad beats of the story could be put over any narrative aesthetic and work just as well. Indeed, in his role as the son of a union organiser murdered by the police and heir presumptive to his father’s position, Patrick Casey has more of Aragorn about him than he does Enjolras. And while the themes of social stratification, exploitation of workers, and economic hardship may still ring true today, the piece shows its age in its one-note depictions of women. It’s certainly the sort of mid-twentieth century musical in which the boys sing about politics, social change, identity, and personal destiny, and the girls sing about… boys.
By a significant margin, the weakest element of this revival of Maggie May is the book itself, which is to say that this is an excellent production of some mediocre material.
The cast (seemingly impossibly large for the pub-theatre scale of the production) is uniformly excellent, and it was hard to believe they had only been performing together for a few days. Whether in their roles as friends or foes, lovers or rivals, the chemistry was always vivid and convincing between all the characters, and the obvious comfort the cast had with each other was keenly felt by the audience.
In his role as the pauper prince Pat Casey, James Darch was charming and endlessly watchable; twinkle-eyed when he needed to be, but effortlessly powerful when he assumed his father’s mantle. Similarly, Kara Lily Hayworth inhabited the admittedly thin role of Maggie May with ease and made more of her Bechdel-Test-failing scenes than should have been possible. David Keller as the elder statesman and unionist true believer was always entertaining, and Mark Pearce’s slimy union leader brought just the right amount of Fagin and Thénardier to his scenes. Indeed, there is almost no member of the cast who does not deserve singling out, and some of the strongest scenes in the production were when the small, pub-theatre stage was filled to bursting with singing, dancing Liverpudlians.
Which brings me to one of the highlights of the production, namely: the dancing. Choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane has worked magic with this production, as her dance numbers, executed ever-so-tightly by the cast, seemed to grow the small venue to that of a West End theatre. This masterful use of the space, combined with Jonathan Simpson’s bold but effective lighting, made it easy to forget I was in a cosy attic upstairs of a pub – although, sat as I was in the front row, I did sometimes feel that I could catch a high kick to the face at any moment!
Before summarising my overall impression of this production of Maggie May, I must preface with a reiteration that the original text is not strong. There is certainly charm and linguistic interest in the language used – an appealing if often unintelligible docklands mixture of Scouser, Irish Gaelic, and Welsh – but the plot often felt as grey and grimy as Liverpool bilge water. What really brought this show to life was the superb skill and energy of the creatives involved, most especially the director, choreographer, and actors. While emotional investment in Liverpool and/or trade union politics of the 60s would probably enhance the experience, all you really need is a love of musical theatre to enjoy this show. But hurry, Maggie will be gone by May!
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