Rarely have I left a theatre as moved as I was last night after the performance of Maggie May. I am not saying that everyone will feel the same but the subject matter and the way it was handled certainly hit a nerve.
The play was originally scheduled to be performed before the pandemic but had to be postponed until after the lockdowns. A note in the programme by the playwright, Frances Poet, refers to her sorrow that the delay has meant her mother and Aunty Margaret were not able to see the production, both having died in the interim. Aunty Margaret was living with dementia, which is what is happening to the eponymous character in the play. It was the opposite with me as a very close friend has developed the condition during lockdown, which is what made the work so poignant. I know that he reads my reviews as he often leaves comments. I love you, mate!
Essentially this is a five-hander centring around Maggie, played by the incredible Eithne Browne, who is on stage for the whole two hours of the play. There is an interval, giving both her and the audience, an opportunity to gather their thoughts.
The way in which the situation is set up is very imaginative in that the opening sees Maggie and her husband, Gordon, waking up one morning. As they get out of bed a post-it note flutters down from the array of those stuck to a rack above the stage to remind her of things to do. This one is to inform her that their son, Michael, and his new girlfriend, Claire are coming as it is his birthday. Michael has not been made aware of his mother’s condition but this has to be done when Maggie keeps referring to Claire as Emily, Michael’s ex. Michael has trouble coming to terms with the situation, whereas Claire is only too ready to be of assistance.
The fifth member of the cast is Jo, Maggie’s oldest and closest friend. She learns of Maggie’s dementia from Michael in a phone call some days later, which causes friction between the two women. The rest of the play deals with the way in which Maggie comes to terms with her situation, and the steep learning process embarked upon by those around her.
The play could have easily been maudlin but there was lots of humour involved and the ends of both scenes were quite uplifting. Gordon had devised a way of breaking Maggie out of her ‘foggy’ moments by singing one of their favourite songs which prompts her into joining in and finishing them off, whilst mam and dad dancing.
Jo also has some great lines as she is traditionally greeted by Maggie saying ‘Go on then, give us a laugh.’ To which Jo responds with a joke.
There is no way that I can do justice to the actors who delivered the dialogue in an authentic Leeds accent, not easy for non-Loiners. As I have said before, Eithne Browne was on stage the whole time and ran the gamut of emotions from hilarity, through tenderness, annoyance, bewilderment, compassion and mischief, to utter despair. She must have been in shreds by the end of the performance. Tony Timberlake, as Gordon, was the archetypal husband/father, trying to keep the family together despite the rift between mother and son. He displayed wonderful warmth and humour whilst obviously being torn apart by seeing his wife disintegrate whilst he was getting better after his stroke. He has appeared in several hit musicals so must have a bit of a voice on him but he managed to perfectly belt out the Seventies hits just as any normal dad would without sounding like a professional, thus acting like a professional!
Mark Holgate as Michael was the epitome of a man who was full of the frustration of not knowing what to do, or how to react to the bombshell that had just landed. He became annoyed at both himself and others around him in being unable to deal with it.
Jo, Maxine Finch, the best friend who became the object of Maggie’s ire, as best friends can in times of stress, was also natural which was beautifully illustrated in her embarrassment after inadvertently telling a totally inappropriate joke. You wanted the stage to open up and swallow her as the penny dropped and she realised what she had said.
Finally, Shireen Farkhoy as Claire, Michael’s new girlfriend, who seemed to grasp the situation at the birthday party before anyone else and then became a rock to Maggie, even after she and Michael had broken up due to his not being able to deal with the new circumstances. She again was very natural but at times was a bit quiet in her speaking voice which made it quite difficult for an old duffer like me to make bits of it out.
There is quite a large creative team so please click on Credits from the link below. I will just pick out the Set and Costume Designer, Francis O’Connor whose imaginatively minimalist set added to the atmosphere and the way in which the furniture moved on and off the stage without the need of human assistance, meant that the audience’s attention was not diverted from the action. The post-it notes were also a great touch.
Maggie May, which is a Leeds Playhouse, Curve and Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch production directed by Jemma Levick runs until 21st May and all performances are dementia friendly. For full details of what is being done to facilitate this and how to book tickets, please go to https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/maggie-may-2/
All images provided by Leeds Playhouse with photography by Zoe Martin