‘A timely revival of a forgotten classic’: MAGGIE MAY – Finborough Theatre ★★★★

In London theatre, Musicals, Opinion, Reviews by Debbie GilpinLeave a Comment

Finborough Theatre, London – until 20 April 2019

Lionel Bart and Alun Owen’s musical Maggie May first opened in London 55 years ago, when it made its debut at the Adelphi Theatre in September 1964 – despite its success it hasn’t been seen since. It’s high time that it was revived, and so SDWC Productions have done just that, bringing the show to the Finborough Theatre for a limited run.

Get all social media for Maggie May & its cast on www.stagefaves.com

The show takes its inspiration from the ballad of the same name about Liverpool prostitute Margaret Mary Duffy (a.k.a. Maggie May), making a new story that centres around her – as well as delving into the trade union disputes that engulfed the dockers.

When Patrick Casey (son of a famous trade union leader) sets sail from Liverpool, he leaves behind his sweetheart Maggie who ends up on the game; she is well liked by the locals, though out of affection for Patrick she calls all of her clients ‘Casey’. Patrick eventually makes his return, hoping to pick up where he left off with Maggie as well as avoid being cast in the same role as his father – all he wants is a quiet life. However, when the dockers discover they’ve been loading shipments of guns that will be used to oppress people like them overseas, it becomes a case of money vs. principles.

For me, seeing this show was a bit of a double whammy: I absolutely adore Liverpool, and I’ve somehow never seen a Lionel Bart show before (though, like most people, I know a fair few of the songs from Oliver!). There is an inherent risk in writing a musical that covers sociopolitical themes like this; having read Oliver Twist I’m actually quite horrified that a jaunty musical was created from the material, and re-watching Les Misérables recently (following the excellent BBC drama) showed me how sanitised the important pieces of the source material have become – the songs are good, but it’s oh so very clean… Thankfully, Maggie May is a little more successful in that it does seem to take these issues seriously and isn’t afraid of having a bit of darkness to it, as well as capturing the spirit of Liverpool. Workers struggling under austere conditions and clashing with corrupt leaders sounds all too familiar, making its reappearance rather timely.

It is a bit of a shame that – due to the obvious constraints of an intimate pub theatre – the score can’t be heard in its original form, as it takes in all kinds of Scouse influences, from ballads & traditional Irish folk music to rock ‘n’ roll. However, the simplicity of the single piano as accompaniment (Henry Brennan) brings a rawness to certain numbers and also a suggestion of the music hall to others; it is perfect for a theatre like Finborough’s, and definitely preferable to the use of a backing track.

Considering the small area to work with, Verity Johnson has done a great job with set design, using a simple collection of props and a backdrop of the docks to immediately show us where we are – the piano is even camouflaged into the set, looking like another set of wooden crates. I should also mention Johnson’s costume design, which again help to conjure up Liverpool in our eyes; a clear choice has also been made to show the two sides of Maggie’s character – a black & red number while she’s at work, and lighter pastel colours for more domesticated moments. Sam Spencer Lane has been ambitious with the choreography, throwing in some daring moves that you can just about get away with in that performance space. Some of it may be on the ‘jazz hands’ end of the spectrum, though it is all energetically performed and there are some nice nods to the various genres of music incorporated in the score.

A hugely talented cast has been assembled for this show, including a sinister & sleazy portrayal of Willie Morgan from Mark Pearce, and some fantastic comic timing from Natalie Williams as Maureen O’Neill. Aaron Kavanagh is great value as the balladeer (opening & closing the show with the atmospheric The Ballad of the Liverbird) and is very funny as the increasingly frustrated milkman singing Shine You Swine at a couple of points in the show.

James Darch charms as Patrick Casey, the reluctant leader who quickly realises that things aren’t as black & white as he once thought. Opposite him as the eponymous heroine, Kara Lily Hayworth is both heartbreaking and full of spirit; she’d gladly give up her job to commit to the man she loves, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t treasure her independence. The pair have an easy rapport, and their voices combine beautifully in song.

Maggie May Photo credit: Ali Wright

My verdict? A timely revival of a forgotten classic, showcasing some terrific musical theatre talent – it is beautifully designed and makes great use of the intimate performance space.

Rating: 4*

Maggie May runs at the Finborough Theatre until 20 April 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.

Tags: Aaron Kavanagh, Alun Owen, Finborough Theatre, Henry Brennan, James Darch, Kara Lily Hayworth, Lionel Bart, London, Maggie May, Mark Pearce, Natalie Williams, Off West End, review, Sam Spencer Lane, SDWC Productions, theatre, Verity JohnsonCategories: all posts, review, theatre

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Debbie Gilpin
Debbie Gilpin stumbled into writing about theatre when she moved to London after studying for a degree in Human Genetics at Newcastle University. She started her website Mind the Blog in November 2014 and also tweets from @Mind_the_Blog. She spent the best part of 2014-16 inadvertently documenting Sunny Afternoon in the West End, and now also writes for BroadwayWorld UK. Debbie’s theatre passions are Shakespeare and new writing, but she’s also a sucker for shows with a tap routine.
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Debbie Gilpin on FacebookDebbie Gilpin on RssDebbie Gilpin on Twitter
Debbie Gilpin
Debbie Gilpin stumbled into writing about theatre when she moved to London after studying for a degree in Human Genetics at Newcastle University. She started her website Mind the Blog in November 2014 and also tweets from @Mind_the_Blog. She spent the best part of 2014-16 inadvertently documenting Sunny Afternoon in the West End, and now also writes for BroadwayWorld UK. Debbie’s theatre passions are Shakespeare and new writing, but she’s also a sucker for shows with a tap routine.

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