Maggie May (Finborough Theatre)

Maggie May (Finborough Theatre, until April 20th)

It’s a fair bet that anyone remotely familiar with Lionel Bart’s musical Maggie May knows it through Judy Garland’s 1964 EP of four of its songs or the 18th Century ballad on which it’s based.

Shirley Bassey recorded one of the songs and even The Beatles sang a short version of the original sea shanty after getting to know Alun Owen, who wrote both the show’s book and their debut feature film A Hard Day’s Night.

What is extraordinary – given the quality of the first professional London revival of the show since its first West End run in 1964 – is that it isn’t performed regularly and that it’s so relatively unknown.

Bart certainly had some duds, but Maggie May isn’t one of them.  It ran for more than 500 performances at the Adelphi, and won awards for best score and best new British musical with a cast including Rachel Roberts, Kenneth Haigh, Barry Humphries, John Junkin, and Geoffrey Hughes.

Now, the ever exciting Finborough Theatre in West Brompton reminds us of the show’s merits with a thrilling production that fills its small space impressively, boasting outstanding performances and breath-taking choreography. Describing it in context as scaled-down is somewhat tempting, but is rather a misnomer, as everyone involved makes makes sure we know this is big stuff.

The story is as hard-hitting today as it must have been in the early 1960s. Set around the Liverpool docks it tells of the love between the son of a well-respected union leader and a young streetwalker, amid corruption, betrayal and the beating heart of a city. There’s plenty of meat to sink your teeth into storywise, from the brutal reality of strikes to illegal gun-running to South America, where the military will use the weapons to put down the workers.

Names dropped into the script such as Bessie Braddock, Cardinal Heenan and Billy Smart set the tone rather than ever making the show feel dated and while there is a large dose of Scouse resilience at its core, nothing about the show or the production ever dips into caricature.

There are times one is reminded of the style and local understanding of Willy Russell, whose Blood Brothers was still two decades away. This is a show that understands the defiant and humorous people of the setting, and every character is drawn vividly and portrayed eloquently by an enthralling and talented ensemble cast.

At the centre are the doomed lovers, whose tragic tale of schoolfriends whose love is rekindled years later, unfolds every bit as dramatically as West Side Story. Kara Lily Hayworth’s Maggie May is a tough cookie, so enamoured of her childhood sweetheart that she names all of her clients after him until the real thing bursts back into her life. While fragile she has a steely resolve, convinced that a happy ending is the only possible outcome. Hayworth brings out the character’s attributes in her all too few solo numbers. James Darch as Pat Casey is every inch the hero, separated from his young love after the death of his rabble-rousing trade unionist father and now torn between a desire to take on his father’s mantle and his love for Maggie. Their soaring love duet “It’s Yourself” is as good as you’ll see anywhere and Darch’s “I’m Me,” tormented by inner conflicts, is exceptional.

Undeniably the men have the lion’s share of characters, songs and dances. It’s a good idea for Aaron Kavanagh’s balladeer to crop up as a somewhat heinous narrator (another similarity to Blood Brothers), opening with the atmospheric scene-setter “The Ballad of the Liver Bird” and reappearing as both an angry milkman and Elvis-style club singer, enigmaticallly un-nerving. Michael Nelson’s Judder is the charming Judas of the piece, smouldering with discontent and jealousy, almost impossible to wrench one’s eyes away from, while David Keller’s Old Dooley has tremendous presence as the no nonsense docker, remembering his martyred colleague and friend, Pat Casey’s father, and committed to the old ways, scornful of the youngsters who want an easier path in life. Mark Pearce is excellent as the corrupt Welshman Willie Morgan, all fake charm and cynicism.

Naming individuals seems unfair, as every single member of this fine company contributes to the overall success of the production. The strength of the cast is in making every character believable and individually interesting. However, each person plays their part well, so name-check we must: Euan Bennet as Eric Dooley, Leon Kay as Gene, Cathy McManamon as Norah, Natalie Williams as Maureen, Barnaby Taylor as T.C., Joshua Barton and Chloe Carrington.

The sights and sounds of Liverpool docks are recreated splendidly by Verity Johnson’s monochrome set with a large black and white photograph at one end, gantries, cranes and movable steps evoking the atmosphere perfectly. What colour there is comes in some of her costumes, Jonathan Simpson’s lighting and Philip Matejtschuk’s sound, a constant backdrop of gutsy Merseyside life.

Although set at the birth of the Mersey Beat, the songs (bar the rock and roll opening to Act Two) are far more eclectic – from foot-stamping folk and frisky music hall to jazz and blues and even a spirited cha cha. It is to the credit of lively musical director Henry Brennan on the piano that he captures every musical style effortlessly and the simple accompaniment always sounds perfectly sufficient whatever the mood.

When a dance routine recreates the famous evolution of man diagram you know the show’s choreographer is stunningly creative and so it is here with Sam Spencer-Lane, who ensures every number is energetic. At times there are 13 performers on the traverse stage and it’s difficult to work out how they are not bumping into each other or kicking the knees of audience members such are the demands placed upon them but there are no accidents, just unflagging zest and meticulous precision.

Director Matthew Iliffe ensures every aspect of the show is a rediscovered joy when he could all too easily have allowed himself to be weighed down by the task. The slight editing is always prudent, though the climactic scene of Casey’s death while trying to dump the contraband guns into the river and the part the union boss plays in his demise is somewhat lost, so it is possibly worth going in with some knowledge of the plot (the programme is a helpful purchase here).

It is undoubtedly a working class musical of its time, this production commemorating the 20th anniversary of Bart’s death, but all hail to SDWC Productions and the Finborough, who once again dust down a neglected musical gem in their Celebrating British Music Theatre series, and allow it to sparkle for a new generation.

David Guest

Image: Ali Wright

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub