Review: Maggie May

MAGGIE MAY at the Finborough Theatre until Sat 20 April. Image courtesy Finborough website

IN BRIEF Lionel Bart’s Liverpool dockside drama / musical shows its age in its sexual attitudes, but is brought back to life by a hard-working cast and two assured lead performances

Every time you walk into the tiny 50-seat Finborough it’s an adventure. You never know how the space will be configured, or what sort of a set and performance space you will see. For Alun Owen and Lionel Bart’s MAGGIE MAY the seating is traverse (in two banks facing each other, with a central performance space). Verity Johnson’s smart but spare set design has a photo backdrop of the Liverpool dock cranes to one side, accompanied by three black tower cranes looming over the performance space. Together with the (extensive for the Finborough) lighting rig, this has the effect of making the tiny Finborough seem even tinier.

Dry ice (that familiar claggy smell) creates a foggy dock atmosphere but necessitating the air con to stay on for the duration of the show (which kept any fresh produce we might have had about our persons nice and crisp). The sound design subtly gives us an occasional tugboat horn.

This is the first professional revival since it ran for 500 performances at the 1500-seat Adelphi Theatre in 1964/5. The plot? Maggie and Casey grew up together in Liverpool’s dockland. Casey’s dad was revered, dying in union strife. Now, Maggie is a confident, successful prostitute servicing the dockers, and the unexpected but longed-for return of Casey (her untarnished childhood love) disrupts the status quo. Dockwork brings challenges, and as Casey stands up for his principles, he is let down by co-workers and unions. Taking things into his own hands, during an attempt at sabotaging a shipment of guns he is killed in accident, destroying Maggie’s one chance of true love.

As Maggie, Kara Lily Hayworth sings soulfully and with feeling, however early on she occasionally underprojects which made it impossible to hear the lyrics she was singing, a disappointment. She successfully reinvents the character from a bit of “brass”at the start of the show to the more feminine, yielding woman that she wants to be for Casey. James Darch as her fated lover, Patrick Casey has presence and the strength vocally and physically to carry off the role with aplomb, moving through his storyline convincingly. His singing is never less than exciting, and the scenes between the two leads have a genuine warmth and intimacy. Aaron Kavanagh as the Balladeer does good work in the hard job of warming up the audience, with skill and soul. Michael Nelson has energy to spare as the aggressive Judder, and gives as much value here as he did in the splendid THE RINK last year at Southwark. He is also a fearsome Dance Captain, although the tiny Finborough stage is not quite the place for Sam Spencer Lane’s ambitious choreography to take flight, making it feel congested.

A special mention for the hard-working Musical Director and band-of-one, pianist Henry Brennan. It is usual for the Finborough to only have space for a piano for these musical revivals, and although occasionally one might wish for a variation in accompaniment, the sheer hard work and focus accompanists provide is to be applauded, as he was at the performance I attended.

The 25 songs are a mix of boisterous ensemble “local colour” numbers, interspersed with solo and duet numbers – these are by far the more appealing, as they allow you to focus on the characters as well as appreciate the musical quality. Both leads’ singing delivery has a sweet infusion of Irish-Celtic which makes the numbers very attractive.

Some of the working-class Liverpool dialect is a little hard to comprehend, but the hard-working cast do everything they can to lend the tale some authenticity. Although we must remind ourselves that the show was written in 1964, the sexual politics of the situation feel somewhat uncomfortable for a modern audience, certainly for me.

So, as we often find, the book has aged badly, but it’s the ballads and duets which retain their tenderness and appeal, and at the end of the day, they (and the performers) make this show worth seeing.

NB As the entire run is sold out, I will not prolong your agony by posting a link to the Finborough website

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