Wednesday 11th May 2022 at Leeds Playhouse (Courtyard Theatre).
“Who am I then?” “Who else would I be?”
Frances Poet’s Maggie May takes this idea of an endangered sense of identity and builds on it layer over layer until we see the true weight of its significance. In this perceptive and sensitive play, what at first may appear flippant or charismatically defiant also serves to highlight the frustration caused by telling people living with dementia that they’re not themselves when they’re “foggy” or struggling – or worrying what the future might hold. Maggie May builds its foundations in humour but doesn’t shy away from naming the biggest anxieties around living with Alzheimer’s.
Maggie is sparky. She takes care of her husband Gordon who is recovering from a stroke and she’s a loving mother to her son. In the capable hands of Eithne Browne, she’s funny with a sardonic edge and quick-witted, whether warm or chiding. And she has Alzheimer’s. Her husband (Tony Timberlake) is utterly devoted to her, well-matched in wit and takes the lead in providing a musical soundtrack for their daily lives – something which increasingly becomes a welcome crutch as times get tougher and familiarity wavers. The pair are hugely likeable and their story is one which we easily take to heart.
While Maggie and husband win us over very quickly, the son, Michael (Mark Holgate) and the best friend, Jo (Maxine Finch) have a rockier ride at first; both seem to be glaring representatives of how not to react when someone close to you has been diagnosed with a life-altering disease. Holgate brilliantly highlights the dichotomy of resentment and fear of losing precious time as Michael struggles to come to terms with his mum’s decisions, while Finch captures the awkward transition from comfortable, easy friendship to something altogether new and unpredictable. Michael’s girlfriend Claire (Shireen Farkhoy) however flies the flag for sensitive strangers and Farkhoy offers warmth and a generous sense of fun to rival even that of Gordon.
Director Jemima Levick prioritises humour in a play which offers darkness and light but leans notably towards the light. The brutality of the disease is given air time, but there’s much more engagement with coping strategies (some quirkier than others) rather than helplessness. Levick allows scenes to linger in their escapism, bringing warmth and affection to the fore primarily through playful singing of songs, impromptu dancing and very bad jokes. But the piece tugs at heartstrings too and the almighty thud with which Maggie’s innocent mistakes land is impressive in impact; the way Poet’s writing shifts from the everyday to the painfully unexpected is possibly its greatest source of power.
Another particularly likeable feature of this play is its authentic use of dialect; “mesen” and “me husband” are not just lazily used to underscore comic lines with a northern twang (as we’ve all seen before), they’re merely one element of Maggie’s identity. And it’s not just embedded in dialogue, but also displayed on screens which summarise – often comically – locations and situations as a running commentary of sorts to reflect the difficulty Maggie has in processing things. At such points, the script, echoed by those screens, helps us to follow that process of the brain seeking recognition until it lands on familiarity: “me husband and our Michael”.
Alzheimer’s is a spectre and a thief here – sometimes literally thanks to a brief encounter with a grim apparition (given dramatic impact by Chris Davey’s eerie lighting). Francis O’Connor’s set is fantastic in the way it captures the core components of this story, both in its smooth transitions between rooms in the family home and its more representative details relating to subject matter. Most fitting is the substantial overhead structure carrying a sea of post-it notes ominously hanging over proceedings – a moving nod to the recognisable marker of memory loss: overwhelming reminders everywhere.
Maggie May confidently explores an emotional subject through gentle comedy rather than tear-jerking drama, opting to show us what can be achieved when we’re brave enough to talk openly about the unspeakable, wise enough to find the humour even in heartbreak and optimistic enough to accept the things we cannot change while making the most of what we have while we have it. Its messages are heartfelt and its approach is refreshing – see it if you can.
Maggie May plays Leeds Playhouse until May 21st 2022 and you can find your tickets here.