Finborough Theatre, London – until 20 April 2019
An excuse to review Maggie May is really an excuse to tell my Lionel Bart story.
In the 1980s I was in a pretty shoddy production of his Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at a West London theatrical venue I won’t name for fear of embarrassing it. Audiences were poor, and one evening having sold just seven tickets we decided to give everyone their money back and go to the pub … when the stage door got a phone call to say Lionel Bart was on his way.
We hastily sent half the cast into the local pubs to give out free tickets while our Musical Director had the vapours at having to play in front of the composer.
Bart turned up with a couple of minders just before 8, blind drunk and weaving. He very quickly got restless for us to start, so sat down in the orchestra pit and started to play the overture … to Oliver!
Our MD eventually elbowed him off the piano stool and launched into the first number while half the cast were still press-ganging audience members, so just three of us lurched through a routine designed for eight.
Bart was kind and congratulatory at the end, offering several of us auditions for a ‘new show’ he was writing.
My final memory was walking to the tube watching him vomit over our poster displayed outside the theatre.
Maggie May, is not his best work. But it is his contribution to the fascinating genre of ‘sixties musicals about whores’. Sweet Charity is about to open at the Donmar and highlight the ‘taxi dancer’ girls of lower Manhattan, Irma La Douce starred Shirley MacLaine as a tart with a heart in Montmartre, Maggie May features a working prostitute in Liverpool Docks.
And a plot about smuggling guns to South Africa.
The London Fringe has been diligent in ploughing back catalogue after back catalogue for ‘forgotten’ musicals, and Maggie May has not been seen in London for 55 years. Although Matthew Iliffe’s production is valiant and inventive, it does expose the flaws, and its depiction of women characters doesn’t play well to a contemporary audience.
Bart’s diverse score includes sweet and rueful ballads, a trade union anthem with samba rhythms, and importantly was one of the first to incorporate rock and roll – so it deserves hearing. Unfortunately not even the bravura of leads Kara Lily Hayworth and James Darch, nor Henry Brennan’s determined solo piano, can give it a proper Merseybeat sound.
In 1964 , even Judy Garland hastily recorded a four song EP to boost her friend Bart’s chances with the show.
A delightful theatrical history lesson. But still not a hit show.
until April 20