Finborough Theatre, London – until 20 April 2019
Lionel Bart’s love letter to Liverpool is an interesting choice of revival. Originally performed at the Adelphi in 1964 at the height of Beatlemania and the Merseybeat, Bart claims he came up with the concept before anyone had even heard of the Beatles. Whilst his music and lyrics focus on Liverpool’s Irish-Celtic roots, Alun Owen’s (who wrote the A Hard Day’s Night screenplay) book embraces Owen’s hometown, its working-class immigrant roots and the people who made Liverpool.
Maggie May (played by the excellent Kara Lily Hayworth who appeared as Cilla Black in Cilla the Musical) is Maggie, a prostitute in 1960s Liverpool longing for her childhood sweetheart Patrick Casey (so in love is she that all her clients are called Casey) when Pat (James Darch) joins the local dockyard following the death of his union leader father it sets in motion a union dispute about guns and love story that is destined for tragedy.
This intimate production is a constant ‘what if’: what if there was more than excellent Harry Brennan on piano, what if there was a bigger stage and cast for the wonderfully choreographed numbers? Speaking to Aeron James afterwards, he made an excellent point that this could become a Half a Sixpence-style revival.
The main issues are that the union story is very of its time, the whole production feels like a historical artefact to a different time, a real contrast to the swinging sixties as this tale of unions and sex workers could easily be set in any other pre-1970s decade. This isn’t as negative as it sounds, the industrial set looks great in the small space, Verity Johnson’s costumes are incredible and Sam Spencer-Lane is a choreographer to look out for.
The real star is Hayworth, as the ‘tart with a heart’ Maggie May with her stunning vocals and brassy scouse demeanour but the union story is so dominating that she often feels a supporting cast member in her own story. There is are some great supporting performances from Mark Pearce as the sleazy union man Willie Morgan, Natalie Williams as Maureen, a fellow prostitute whose duets with Maggie ‘I Told You So’ and Union Cha Cha really show a strong female relationship, based on their differences as much as their similarities. Michael Nelson as Judder Johnson provides a well-rounded antagonist with Casey’s best interests at heart in contrast with his own prejudices against how Maggie May makes her income.
The songs aren’t quite Oliver! they are varied and allow each cast member to shine as individuals and as a company. Mostly it is just nice to see Matthew Iliffe’s direction stay faithful to the original. The recent revival of Twang! shows what happens when you try to refresh a stale production.
Maggie May is until 20 April https://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2019/maggie-may.php