Sitting in The Garden Theatre, the newly-named performance space at The Eagle in Vauxhall, on a hot summer’s night, sipping an icy vodka and tonic and watching six actors strut their stuff, accompanied by a pianist, is as close to heaven as this reviewer has been for six long months. It was, quite literally, an oasis, in the desperate COVID-created cultural landscape in which we currently find ourselves. And let’s shout it from the rooftops: WE NEED THEATRE! WE NEED LIVE PERFORMANCE! There is a frisson to seeing real people – people like us – telling us a story. We feel it in a different way. So, congratulations to everyone involved in bringing this first taster back to us. It was managed beautifully; a track and trace system and social distancing were in place, but handled with ladlefuls of welcome and humanity by the Eagle staff, and the whole event fizzed with a sense of delight and solidarity.
The show itself is a musical, based on the true story of two young men in Victorian London – Frederick William Park and Ernest Boulton – who were put on trial for dressing as women and conspiring to commit sodomy. Frederick and Ernest – the eponymous Fanny and Stella – were well-known figures, having public dalliances with a bevy of society gentlemen, as well as attending drag balls, which were a feature of gay London life of the period. Glenn Chandler’s book and lyrics emphasise the freedom the young men feel within this world and their right to live as they choose – which is a reminder of the battle against misogyny that femme-presenting gay men and trans women still battle with today. The reminder is there, but the piece is far from a polemic. Steven Dexter (director) and Nick Winston (musical staging) have done a terrific job of bringing some real MT pzazz to this tiny space; the choreography is simple but tight throughout, and the performers make it sing, with Jed Berry (Stella) in particular, leading from the front and dancing with real skill, style and showmanship.
There are a few stand-out numbers, as you would expect, and the opener – Sodomy on the Strand – starts the show with a bang. Alex Lodge (Louis Charles Hurt) does some lovely work in one of the more tender romantic songs, but (’twas ever thus) the show really belongs to the barn stormers, and Kane Verrall (Fanny) gives them exactly the level of gutsy ribald chutzpah they need. He gives a terrific comedy performance throughout, and helps get things back on track on the few occasions when the script loses a bit of energy and pace. There are a couple of jarring moments tonally (the horribly invasive medical scene just didn’t sit right as light comedy) but, as a whole, the show is a light and frothy bit of fun, providing a very welcome 90 minutes of laughter and joy in this strange hot summer of 2020.
“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.