Sunday, 31 March 2019

REVIEW: Maggie May at the Finborough Theatre

Maggie May was made famous by the 1971 Rod Stewart hit that has become a standard of his live concerts ever since and was based he said on an old song about a Liverpool prostitute. However, seven years earlier Lionel Bart had written a full musical around the same character as a follow up to his big hit musicals of Oliver (1960) and Blitz (1962). The Finborough which prides itself on “unique rediscoveries” has revived it over 50 years since its last professional production. The score won the Novello award as outstanding score of the year and the critics poll as best new British musical, so why has it disappeared from view?

It is an unusual score with a wide range of musical sources from folk ballads, to Jazz, to lullaby’s and laments and lively sixties pop dance and at one point an end of the pier music hall number. All the songs are pleasant tunes accompanied here by just MD Henry Brennan on the upright piano but none of them linger in the memory as tunes. What does linger is the central performance of Kara Lily Hayworth as Margaret Mary Duffy (Maggie May) sounding like Cilla Black. She beautifully captures the hard edge required to do her street work at £5 a man while showing her vulnerability and love for Pat Casey (James Dench) in songs like “I told you so” with her fellow prostitute Maureen (Natalie Williams) and “its Yourself “with Pat. 

The choreography by Sam Spenser- Lane is also excellent using the tiny traverse stage of this intimate venue with routines of up to ten performers. In “Dey don’t do dat t’day” the dockers do a bluesy clog dance , then in “Union Cha-Cha” there is an wonderful dance routine led by the two girls and the dockers and in “The world’s a lovely place” we are given a lively routine that reminded me of the Music Hall led by Willie Morgan ( Mark Pearce) the union leader. It’s fun, exciting and the cast throw themselves in to each routine with real energy and attack.

The problem with the show and the reason that it has not been done for many years is that Alun Owen’s book is full of dated attitudes. The relatively thin storyline about dockers objecting to loading guns for export and their challenge to authority which provides the context for the simple love story of Maggie and Pat is so routed in sixties Liverpool that it provides only a short insight into a moment of time which it’s hard to draw anything more from. 

The show which runs to just over two hours is an extended Ballad, a folk story,
which is set in context by the song that opens and closes the show “The ballad of the Liverbird”. But this show does not have enough of the Liverpudlian humour that was made famous by the TV show “the Liver birds (1969-1979) or the great Liverpudlian comedians from Arthur Askey, Ken Dodd, Jimmy Turbuck or John Bishop or the great tunes of the Merseybeat era.

Nevertheless, Director Matthew Iliffe gets the most from the script on a limited budget with a strong energetic cast, delightful chorography and pleasing sound. But I left humming the Rod Stewart tune and thinking Pat should have followed his advice, “ Oh, Maggie I could not have tried any more, you lured me away from home cause you didn’t want to be alone , you stole my heart I could not leave if I tried”.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Unreserved | Price: £20
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