Tag Archives: Henry Brennan

Maggie May

Finborough Theatre

Maggie May

Maggie May

Finborough Theatre

Reviewed – 29th March 2019



“it was a touch surreal at one point to see a burly bunch of dockworkers with jazz hands”


Not seen in London for over fifty years, Lionel Bart’s “Maggie May” runs the danger of feeling dated or hackneyed. A modern-day audience can be forgiven for reasoning why it hasn’t been staged for so long. Admittedly it is not one of Bart’s finest, and Liverpudlian Alun Owen’s book has lumpish limitations; but Matthew Iliffe’s revival papers over the cracks and compels us to shed our doubts.

Walking into the Finborough is like wandering onto the set of a 1960s Ken Loach film. We are very much taken back in time as Verity Johnson’s suitably monochrome set recreates the gritty realism of a bygone age. You can almost taste the salt air of the Mersey and feel the fabric of the working-class nobility worn bare. Against the backdrop of dockside gantries and Scouse defiance is the tale of the doomed love affair between the eponymous prostitute, Maggie May, and Pat Casey, the son of a union martyr. Yet much of the plot concentrates on Casey’s fight against his corrupt bosses to prevent a shipment of arms to South Africa.

An odd choice for a musical, and indeed often the music is at odds with its subject matter. It boasts ‘one of the most musically diverse scores’; which is true, in a sense, of this motley crew of numbers if you substitute lack of focus for diversity. There are obvious Celtic roots, but we are taken on a whirlwind tour that takes in Mersey Beat, music hall, rock ‘n’ roll, folk, ballads, a bit of blues and even some ‘hot jazz’. I must say it was a touch surreal at one point to see a burly bunch of dockworkers with jazz hands. Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography is equally eclectic but works impressively well within the confines of the theatre’s space and there are some firecracker routines hemmed in just sizzling to explode onto a larger stage.

The thirteen strong cast almost move as one with a collective personality that braces any weaknesses in the libretto. And despite some patronising patois, the dockers and the whores avoid caricature. Kara Lily Hayworth commands the stage with her presence as the tough, no-nonsense but brittle Maggie May. A popular dockland prostitute, she calls all her clients ‘Casey’ after her childhood sweetheart. Pat Casey returns from a life at sea and their attempts to rebuild their lives together is a rocky road, particularly when Casey gets reluctantly drawn into the dockworkers conflict. James Darch wonderfully exposes the inner conflicts of the man; torn between love and principle, and unable to shake off the shadow of his past. While Lily Hayworth’s strong soprano has the lion’s share of the show’s stirring ballads, Darch contrasts with a memorable rendition of “I’m Me”: one of the musical highlights.

The ensemble numbers tread a more uneven path, veering from the shambolic, tuneless bar-room singalong of “Right of Way” to the richly textured, Kurt Weill inspired “Casey”. Despite Henry Brennan’s dynamic piano accompaniment, I did find myself craving a double base, or a touch of actor-musicianship. But that is just a subjective cavil, and could dilute the acting, which is consistently fine throughout; from Mark Pearce’s self-assured swagger of corrupt union boss, Willie Morgan through to the show-stealing charisma of Michael Nelson’s Judas figure, Judder Johnson.

But like the characters who are shouldering life the best way they can, it sometimes feels like the actors, too, are trying to make the best of what they are given. Yes, there are often reasons why a show isn’t staged for over half a century. However, if this is a charge that can be levelled at “Maggie May”, then this company makes a watertight counterclaim and gives us every reason to catch this revival at the Finborough.


Reviewed by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Ali Wright


Maggie May

Finborough Theatre until 20th April


Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
Homos, or Everyone in America | ★★★★ | August 2018
A Winning Hazard | ★★★★ | September 2018
Square Rounds | ★★★ | September 2018
A Funny Thing Happened … | ★★★★ | October 2018
Bury the Dead | ★★★★ | November 2018
Exodus | ★★★★ | November 2018
Jeannie | ★★★★ | November 2018
Beast on the Moon | ★★★★★ | January 2019
Time Is Love | ★★★½ | January 2019
A Lesson From Aloes | ★★★★★ | March 2019


Click here to see more of our latest reviews on thespyinthestalls.com


Brass – 4 Stars



Union Theatre

Reviewed – 6th November 2018


“this moving piece about love and solidarity, humanises history and brings the forgotten to the foreground”


As Remembrance Sunday is coming up this weekend, with particular poignancy, as it will mark a hundred years since the armistice, Brass seems the most appropriate piece of theatre to watch this week in the capital. Originally commissioned by National Youth Music Theatre in 2014, Benjamin Till’s World War One musical now makes its professional premiere at the Union Theatre. Dramatising real life stories and people from the time, this moving piece about love and solidarity, humanises history and brings the forgotten to the foreground.

The war has been raging on France’s frontlines for a year. Alf, conductor of one of Leeds amateur brass bands, has decided it’s time for him to enlist. With not much encouragement, the rest of the band also agree to sign up, no man wanting to be left behind. After some very basic training, they are packed off across the English Channel, with spirits high, ready to fight the Krauts and become heroes. It doesn’t take long before the true horrors of war reveal themselves. The cheery days in the band seeming like a distant memory.

Back on home soil, the wives, girlfriends, and sisters of the men are left in Leeds to pick up the pieces, everyday, fearful of receiving the dreaded telegram reporting their loved one’s death. But these women aren’t sitting in wait; they bravely do their bit for the war effort, working at the Barnbow munitions factory. Through the correspondence sent between the men and women, the audience are transported back and forth between home and the ravaged front, proving the power of words in sharing love, encouragement, and reassurance.

The most refreshing part of this production is having a story that evenly tells of both men and women’s trials and tribulations during The Great War. As incomprehensibly horrific as being in the trenches must have been, seeing your friends killed right before your eyes, it is just as hard-hitting hearing about those treacherous times through the female perspective. With sensitive sophistication, Brass is a multi-faceted exploration of the devastation war brings to every member of the family.

Benjamin Till’s music ranges from haunting lamentations to raucous morale-boosting ditties, which help to bring light and shade into the show. Most songs are rather unmemorable, yet still excel at moving the story onward, offering the emotional clout needed. The power of the cast’s voices is exemplary, creating gorgeous harmonies that can be spine tingling. With just the Musical Director, Henry Brennan, on the piano, this basic set up gives space for the singing to take centre stage.

Highly moving and heartfelt, Brass compels you to reflect, and make sure that the lives lost to the war are not forgotten.


Reviewed by Phoebe Cole

Photography by Mark Senior



Union Theatre until 24th November


Previously reviewed at this venue:
Heartbreak House | ★★★★ | January 2018
Carmen 1808 | ★★★★★ | February 2018
The Cherry Orchard | ★★★★ | March 2018
Twang!! | ★★★★ | April 2018
H.R.Haitch | ★★★★ | May 2018
It’s Only Life | ★★★★ | June 2018
Around the World in Eighty Days | ★★★ | August 2018
Midnight | ★★★★★ | September 2018


Click here to see more of our latest reviews on thespyinthestalls.com