Review: Maggie May at Royal Court Liverpool ****
She may not walk down Lime Street anymore, but Maggie May is still doing roaring business just down the road in this rousing new musical from Royal Court stalwart Bob Eaton and composer Sayan Kent.
Eaton, director of some of the Court’s biggest hits of the past decade, has been working on the idea for the musical for as long – and now it’s finally come to fruition in an ambitious all-singing, all-dancing, all-playing premiere.
In the historic shanty which launched, if not a thousand ships, then at least a previous musical (Alun Owen and Lionel Bart’s award-winning 1964 production), a Rod Stewart hit….and a cosy Liverpool café, it’s the narrator sailor who loses his money and belongings to “that dirty, robbin' no good Maggie May”.
Here, it’s bold and winsome – but hopelessly naïve – Irish lass Maggie (Christina Tedders), straight off the boat from Dublin and bound for a new life in New York, who falls victim to a light-fingered Liverpudlian minutes after arriving in the port where she’s befriended by street chancer Charlie (Michael Fletcher).
Desperate to earn the money to pay her passage across the Atlantic, she gets a job as a scullery maid in the home of listless businessman James Campbell (Tom Connor).
Maggie (Christina Tedders) and Mrs Bird (Cheryl Fergison). Top: Maggie and Charlie (Michael Fletcher). Photos by Zanto Digital
But when life takes a disastrous turn, she’s left to fend for herself in practically the only profession open to a woman of her ‘kind’. Will Maggie ever realise her dreams? Will amoral toff James get his comeuppance? And will Charlie ever win Maggie’s heart?
There’s nothing terribly revolutionary about the general plot, which sprawls across the second decade of the 20th century, although there is a definite whiff of revolution in the air as the embittered tussle between entitled ruling classes (boo) and noble oppressed workers (hurrah) comes to a head in the famous Liverpool Police Strike of 1919.
But while the male characters are nominally in charge, writer Eaton’s Maggie May is very much about the power of sisterhood.
This is evoked both through the feisty females who ‘entertain’ down at the docks (a great ensemble of actresses, including EastEnders’ Cheryl Fergison who has fun playing good time girl Cast Iron Kate as well as starchy housekeeper Mrs Bird), and also the women who take on the heavy-duty work when the men march off to war.
Kent employs a range of musical styles in what is a busy score (a shame the song titles aren’t included in the programme). The first 15 minutes, which has a feel of the opening of Titanic the Musical, is practically sung through, and music, from Irish jig to Mary Hopkin-tinged folk to a touch of Kurt Weill’s Cabaret, drives much of the following narrative.
Some shocking treatment for Charlie (Michael Fletcher). Photo by Zanto Digital
The cast create a big sound and there are some lovely melodies to enjoy in the moment. The only thing it’s currently missing is a memorable anthemic number – one you’ll be humming on the way to work on Monday.
Eaton practically invented the actor-musician genre when he penned his hit musical Lennon nearly 40 years ago, and here his cast prove to be talented triple threats, adding an impressive display of musicianship - from piano to percussion via sax, double bass, violin, guitar and bodhran - to their exuberant vocal performances.
Tedders is a charming, eminently watchable heroine. And while Fletcher’s character is rather lightweight in comparison, he does have a particularly affecting scene where Charlie returns from the trenches traumatised, mute and shaking – and to brutally uncomprehending medical care.
The action, meanwhile, unfolds over several different segmented sets on the theatre’s original 1938 revolve, of which the interior of the Campbell residence is the most effective.