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Maggie May review at Finborough Theatre, London – ‘a committed revival of Lionel Bart’s gloomy musical’

Kara Lily Hayworth and James Darch in Maggie May at Finborough Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Inspired by an 18th-century ballad, the titular Maggie May in Lionel Bart’s 1964 Liverpool-set musical is the archetypal dockside ‘brass’ with a heart of gold, who believes in a happy-ever-after with her childhood sweetheart.

Bart’s musical is a gloomy, heavy-handed affair and although director Matthew Iliffe does his best to imbue it with new life, there is little tonal variation in his production aside from the jaunty production numbers.

Much of the show’s tedium can be pinned on the book by Alun Owen (of A Hard Day’s Night fame), based around a convoluted trade union dispute. The dialogue and lyrics are often difficult to comprehend in spite of the intimacy of the space and the sense of gloom is further communicated through Verity Johnson’s appropriately industrial, monochromatic design.

With her flame-coloured hair, Kara Lily Hayworth’s Maggie is the brightest thing on the stage, but Maggie is a poorly written part. She’s a symbol rather than an active participant in her own story. James Darch makes a strong romantic lead as her beloved Patrick Casey and Aaron Kavanagh impresses in multiple roles, including Liverpool’s answer to Cliff Richard.

Bart thought of the Irish in Britain as honorary Jews, and his use of folk music is in sync with the Jewish influences that permeated his work. Musical director/solo pianist Henry Brennan plays with unflagging energy throughout but despite this being the first London revival in over 50 years, the subject matter and storytelling feels more well-worn than angrily urgent.

Kara Lily Hayworth: ‘I auditioned for Cilla as I’m about the right height – and I’m ginger’

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A committed ensemble does its best to enliven a revival of Lionel Bart’s irredeemably glum musical