Boasting music and lyrics by Oliver! composer Lionel Bart, the musical Maggie May was last performed in London in 1964 at the Adelphi Theatre. Now, more than 50 years later it returns to the stage at the Finborough Theatre to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Bart, once described by Andrew Lloyd-Webber as “the father of the modern musical”.
Set in Liverpool in the 1960s, Maggie May is not in fact a Rod Stewart tribute act, but a gripping story of working-class struggles. Maggie May (Kara Lily Hayworth) is a prostitute who calls all of her clients “Casey” after her childhood sweetheart Patrick Casey, the son of a renowned union leader killed in a docker’s strike, left to go to sea. When the real Casey (James Darch) returns and takes up a job as a dockworker the two rekindle their romance, but their relationship becomes strained when Casey and his fellow dockers discover they are packing weapons. Casey is forced to choose between his relationship and following in his late father’s footsteps and taking a stand, with devastating consequences.
Alun Owen’s book brings to life the Liverpool of the time and the struggles that the working class people faced during a period of economic decline. While the story of a woman essentially pining for her man feels a little outdated today and the story wraps up too quickly, Maggie May is compelling to watch, dark at times and the script combines well with Bart’s diverse score which encompasses a range of styles, including classic chorus songs, ballads and a little rock n roll thrown in for good measure. It’s easy to see why Bart won an Ivor Novello Award for his efforts, with the infectious Carrying On and Away From Home particular highlights. Talented Musical Director Henry Brennan deserves special mention for his energetic work on piano.
Director Matthew Iliffe makes great use of the intimate surroundings of the Finborough Theatre. The set, designed by Verity Johnson, is simple but effective, transporting the audience to a Liverpool dockside, and couples well with Jonathan Simpson’s atmospheric lighting. Sam Spencer Lane’s choreography makes good use of the theatre’s space, and certainly wouldn’t look out of place in any West End show. The routines are particularly inspired at times, notably during D’Same Size Boots, when the performers swap boots, jackets and hats while they move.
There’s no weak link among the 13-strong cast and it’s a real ensemble performance with the group numbers all entertaining to watch and the harmonies pitch perfect. Aaron Kavanagh opens the show brilliantly as the ballader and later as the despondent milkman, although the highlight is when he dons his leather jacket and channels Elvis to perform Carrying On. Mark Pearce is convincing as the corrupt, sleazy union boss Willie Morgan; David Keller too as the disgruntled Old Dooley who remembers better days; while Natalie Williams offers strong support as Maggie’s friend and fellow streetwalker Maureen. Leading man James Darch puts in a strong performance as Casey, who faces conflict between his co-workers and girlfriend; and he provides one of the show’s musical highlights with his powerful solo number, I’m Me. But the night belongs to Kara Lily Hayworth as Maggie, a strong-willed woman who says what she thinks and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, but has a softer side too. Hayworth brings a vulnerability to the character, and her stunning voice threatens to steal the show.
While Maggie May is not necessarily Bart’s strongest work, it offers something different to traditional musicals – it’s grittier and there’s certainly no all-singing, all-dancing happy ending – and it’s perfectly suited to the Finborough Theatre. A stunning production with a standout score, energetic choreography and brilliant performances, Maggie May is certainly well worth a watch.
Maggie May is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 20 April.
Photo credit: Ali Wright