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Maggie May

Review - Maggie May at the Finborough Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The Finborough is one of London's fringe powerhouses: a tiny theatre that specialises in both premieres (it introduced new voices like James Graham and Laura Wade, both of whom have gone on to West End success) and revivals of rarely-seen plays and the occasional musical. A production of The Biograph Girl last year, unseen since its original West End production in 1980, was billed as its first professional UK production since then - but it was paying its actors £50 a week (or £7.14 per show, not hour), so I'm not sure in what sense it was truly professional as opposed to merely voluntary, because being a professional entails being salaried for your work as a paid occupation. 

So it is to be welcomed that the theatre's current production of another musical rarity really can call itself professional, since its cast are being paid under the terms of the Equity Fringe Agreement. Given that there are barely 50 seats in the theatre (only possible if they fit five to benches that can comfortably fit four), it means that a show like this with a cast of 13 will have to run at a loss. 

The first note of appreciation and praise is therefore due to producers SDWC Productions for doing the right thing. But the second is to its young director Matthew Iliffe, who found the original cast album from the 1964 West End production of Maggie May while riffling in a second-hand shop in Rye and became determined to revive it.  He brought it to Neil McPherson, artistic director of the Finborough - who, it turned out, had appeared in a National Youth Theatre production himself of the show in 1992 (the last time it was seen in London).

The stars have duly happily aligned to bring this gritty, generous slice of working-class musical life back to London. Set in the docklands of Liverpool, it tells of the reunion of two former sweethearts Pat Casey and Maggie May against the backdrop of a union shipyard dispute.  

The show, with a book by Alun Owen and scored by Lionel Bart (who wrote Oliver!, probably the most enduring and endearing of any British musical of the last century), is full of rousing melodies and darker notes: there is, at times, a Brecht/Weill atmosphere to it. 

The thrill of Iliffe's production is that it brings this teaming world to vivid life on a tiny pocket studio stage. Designer Verity Johnson's set even accommodates not one but two dockyard cranes; and the large cast execute Sam Spencer-Lane's choreography with nimble grace. The company are led with fierce conviction by Kara Lily Hayworth in the title role and James Darch as her lover; there's also strong work from Natalie Williams as Maggie's friend and co-worker Maureen and Mark Pearce as the corrupt deal-making fixer Willie Morgan. 

I'm profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity to see this show - and to be able to do so without seeing actors exploited to provide their labours for free. For a musical that's about labour, that's important.

Maggie May is at the Finborough Theatre until 20th April. 

Photo credit: Ali Wright

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