Review: Maggie May

Maggie May Royal Court
Date: 18/10/2018

Based loosely on an old story about a Liverpool prostitute who plied her trade on Lime Street, Maggie May The Musical is ten years in the making, kept on a low simmer until the time (and finances) were right. And there’s a touch of the West End about this new musical by Bob Eaton.

The programme for Maggie May reveals something that has been apparent from productions at the Royal Court for some time. There’s a successful, established template (entertaining + music + Liverpool twist) that works very well, thankyou very much, and if it ain’t broke why fix it?

Certainly it seems unlikely we’ll see any avant-garde at the Royal Court any time soon – and frankly, why would we? – but Maggie May does push the envelope of what we’ve seen at the rejuvenated theatre over the last ten years.

While there are inflections of the kitchen-sink melodramas of Her Benny and Twopence to Cross the Mersey, Maggie May is an all-singing, all-dancing musical with a big cast. It feels plusher – and the Liverpool Empire might cast a look across the road.

What’s noticeable is the striking set, designed to present three distinct mise-en-scene of Victorian Liverpool. This is made possible by a revolving stage – working for the first time in decades and an original feature of the rebuilt Royal Court.

Against the advice of stern housekeeper Mrs Bird, Maggie fails to keep your hand on her ha’penny and is soon destitute and with a bun in the oven.

It’s yet another sign that the building is coming back to life one step at a time and it transforms Maggie May into something that feels altogether more impressive. Revolution indeed.

Of course, a large ensemble cast swapping characters as quickly as costumes and juggling an orchestra’s worth of musical instruments don’t do any harm either. Christina Tedders is thoroughly convincing as the bolshy-yet-vulnerable Maggie, who quickly finds that Liverpool in the 1910s is crime-ridden, sex-crazed and largely drunk.

But then there’s kindly Scally Charlie and kindly Gent Mr Campbell and life gets rather more complicated. Against the advice of stern housekeeper Mrs Bird, Maggie fails to keep your hand on her ha’penny and is soon destitute and with a bun in the oven. In common with the other historical semi-fictions we’ve seen in Liverpool recently, Maggie May isn’t afraid to acknowledge the genuine hardships of life in the past.

That’s especially true for women, most of whom here are either prostitutes or servants. Maggie May’s world of casual bigotry that sees females patronised, pimped and plucked seems particularly timely in light of recent events.

Maggie May Royal Court

There’s something approaching a social history too, with plenty of Liverpool’s inglorious landmarks – workhouses, bridewells and knocking shops among them – referenced here. So too is the value of trades unions, which play out against the backdrop of a threatened general strike.

There’s a happy ending, of sorts, but not before we content with infant mortality and WWI. And there’s a rather knockabout denouement that particularly serves Tom Connor and Cheryl Fergison – the latter having a hoot playing drunken happy whore Cast Iron Kate. The dynamics feel a bit off given the gritty tones of much of the production, but it’s not unwelcome.

Maggie May presents a rich, sumptuous production that seems to demonstrate another level of confidence in the Royal Court’s in-house production.

Maggie May
Royal Court Theatre
Until 10 November