Maggie May music by Lionel Bart book by Alun Owen. Finborough Theatre, London SW10. 5*****. William Russell

Music &Lyrics by Lionel Bart
Book by Alun Owen
The Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London Sw10 9ED to 20 April 2019.
Tues-Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat & Sun 3pm.
Runs 2hr 25 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 01223 375851

Review: William Russell 28 March

Not a case of Maggie may but Maggie must

A rousing staging with some dynamic choreography and a first rate cast rescue this show not seen in London since 1964 from musical oblivion. It ran for 501 performances, won Bart a Novello award for the music, and starred first Rachel Roberts as Maggie, the legendary Liverpool prostitute, and then Georgia Brown. In spite of that Novello award the score is rum mixture of styles, with the rousing choruses for the dock workers being the best of the bunch – to forgetting the title song.
Bart did not come up with a memorable romantic ballad for Maggie, however, something Lloyd Webber invariably does, nor for the sailor turned dock worker Patrick Casey, the love of her life. It was only after he went to sea that she took up her profession, calling all her clients Casey. The problem then was , and still is, Alan Owen’s book which lumbers along predictable tram lines even although he was trying to celebrate “his” Liverpool. It got by in 1964 because it was rather fashionable to celebrate the north and Bart was still on top of his game – Blitz, also staged at the Adelphi and famous for Noel Coward saying he left humming the sets, and Twang were yet to come.
Director Matthew Iliffe and his -strong cast have put it on the tiny Finborough stage in fine style. The small numbers allow each docker to establish a personality, Aaron Kavanagh as the ballader narrator figure is played straight – Barrie Humphries in the original was a more mythic figure – and Kara Lily Hayworth as Maggie and James Darch as Casey are about as good as you are ever going to get. She has a strong, edgy personality as well as a good voice, and creates a Maggie who is nobody’s fool but a girl making the best of a bad job in a tough old world, while he manages to suggest a man torn between following in his father’s footsteps – father was a legendary trade union leader – or being his own man. They are both lost souls finding salvation in one another.
Maggie May was not a show people took to their hearts back then, although the run was respectable enough. Maybe it was because in the world of musicals it is a rare bird – there is no happy ending. But some of the songs – Right of Way, Dey Don’t Do Dat Today amd D’Same Size Boots – have a tremendous energy and are well worth rediscovering. Musicals back then could give birth to hit parade songs and Bart had managed that before, but the ballads for Maggie are not much more than pleasant.
There is a first rate set – a clever new way of using the Finborough space from designer Verity Johnson – and Henry Brennan at the piano does full justice to the score without banging the life out of the keyboard as sometimes happens when a piano is the sole accompaniment. At least this is not one of those productions where the actors play musical instruments, a cliché of present day musical theatre. Cathy McManamon is impressive as the world weary pub owner, Aaron Kavanagh has style as the balladeer and gets to do the Elvis leather jacket number shoehorned in for no very good reason, and Euan Bennet as the docker following in his father’s footstep takes those stomping dance steps and kicks devised by choreographer Sam Spencer Lane and makes it all look easy. But naming names is invidious really. This is an ensemble cast working as an ensemble. But sitting in the front row you fear for your knees when they do the boots routing as for those on stage some of kicks look like they could be lethal.
The plot has to do with arms shipments to South Africa and Casey’s principled objection to handling such cargoes and his conflict with the union boss – a suitably corrupt fat cat from Mark Pearce – who keeps the workforce happy by getting them more money to handle the goods instead of striking. Maggie May is not a lost Bart masterpiece but this is a revival to stir the blood of any lover of musicals and was, in its way, trying to do something different, to celebrate working c lass life somewhere other than in the East End of London. The economics of the West End probably mean a full scale revival will never happen but productions like this provide all one needs. This isn’t always true of fringe shows although Iliffe has a track record which includes a very fine production of The Burnt Part Boys a year or so back at the Park in Finsbury Park. The last time I saw Maggie May was opening night 1964. This time it was I the day before press night, the week being busy, but if it could get any better it would be very surprising indeed. Everyone seemed on top of their game. Those five stars are not because the show is the greatest of musicals, but because thisi is a model revival which rescues it from oblivion and does so in impeccable style.
This Maggie May is a Maggie Must.

Balladeer/Milkman: Aaron Kavanagh.
Maggie May: Kara Lily Hayworth.
Patrick Casey: James Darch.
Maureen O’Neill: Natalie Williams.
Old Dooley: David Keller.
Eric Dooley: Euan Bennet.
Terry Collins: Barnaby Taylor.
Gene Kierman: Leon Kay.
Judder Johnson: Michael Nelson.
Norah Mulqueen: Cathy McManamon.
Willie Morgan: Mark Pearce.
Sailor/Stevedore/Ensemble: Joshua Barton.
Niece/Ensemble: Chloe Carrington.

Director: Matthew Iliffe.
Set &Costume Designer: Verity Johnson.
Musical Director: Henry Brennan.
Lighting Designer: Jonathan Simpson.
Choreographer: Sam Spencer Lane.
Sound Designer: Philip Matejtschuk.
Photograph of Kara Lily Hayworth © Samuel Black.

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