7th June, 2022
“Pretending everything’s normal”
Two years after its scheduled run at Curve was cancelled due to Covid-19, Frances Poet’s play, co-produced by Curve, Queen's Theatre Hornchurch and Leeds Playhouse, opened last night. A finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, Maggie May is a quietly devastating, often very funny, and surprisingly uplifting play about a woman living with dementia. Led by an exceptional central performance from Eithne Browne, Poet’s play doesn’t shy away from exploring the upsetting parts of the illness, whilst confidently showing that moments of joy, love and independence still exist after diagnosis.
Maggie May follows the story of a feisty woman from Leeds who tries to keep her Alzheimer’s diagnosis a secret from the world. She withdraws from friends and leaves notes for everything around the house. When her son and his new girlfriend visit, it’s clear she can no longer hide it from them. What I really liked about the play is that Poet makes the topic of dementia accessible. We see Maggie’s thought processes when she’s in a new situation: ‘I send signal to brain. Recognition’. We also hear her liken it to fog or a head full of treacle. Whereas Florian Zeller’s The Father has a clear trajectory of showing the title character’s illness decline, I really admire Poet’s more mature approach to portraying dementia on stage. Along with moments of confusion, there are also moments of lucidity. Late in the play, Maggie is still someone who is autonomous, pragmatic and even pro-active with her illness, having taken on a job as a dementia ambassador. And the darker moments are explained in an accessible way which make them less daunting. For example, when Maggie experiences delirium caused by a water infection, she likens it to her body trying to juggle two balls in one hand and it can’t cope when another one is thrown in. Eithne Browne in the title role gives a really touching performance as Maggie. We fully believe this is a strong Leeds woman who’s led a full life (running a kitchen, doing her son’s accounts, caring for her husband following a stroke), and Browne captures Maggie’s fears, determination and humour beautifully. Maggie is a character with dementia, not defined by it.
In 2021, it’s estimated that over 1 million people in the UK were living with a form of dementia. The arts have a vital part to play, from delaying its onset and diminishing its severity, to improving the quality of life for those with the condition and their carers. Gemima Levick’s excellent production is therefore doing crucial work in ensuring that the play has been conceived to be accessible for people living with dementia. Characters wear the same colour scheme throughout (Gordon in brown, Claire in purple, Maggie in grey); and captions highlighting Maggie’s thought processes accompany each scene to help audiences follow the narrative. It is a remarkable achievement that all areas of the production (writing, direction, design, front of house) are involved in making the play as accessible as possible. Nicky Taylor’s team at Leeds Playhouse (formerly West Yorkshire Playhouse) have done ground-breaking work to make theatre inclusive for people living with dementia. Their 2014 production of White Christmas (directed by Nikolai Foster) held the UK’s first dementia friendly performance, and they have since produced a practical guide to adapting productions to create a safe space for those living with the illness. Foster has continued to champion this work as Artistic Director of Curve and dementia friendly performances are now a frequent fixture of its calendar. They increase opportunities for people with dementia to access life-enhancing shows, reconnect them to their local theatres and reaffirm theatre’s role in society through connecting communities. A shout out must also go to the front of house team at Curve. They’re always friendly and helpful, but they’ve gone the extra mile to ensure a safe space has been created. A booth in the foyer highlights the many local resources available and acts as a quiet space for visitors to reflect on the play. Leaflets from the Alzheimer's Society have also been placed in the bar to provide further information. This is a brilliant example of how theatres are a central hub in a community, forging partnerships with purpose in the local area and ensuring everyone’s included.
Francis O’Connor’s design creates Maggie’s world with furniture coming on stage on tracks. The way the dining table and bed move are particularly clever in showing how the illness can fragment parts of the home life. The supporting cast all do a fine job, especially Shireen Farkhoy’s ever-optimistic Claire and Tony Timberlake as Maggie’s husband Gordon, singing songs and seeing the bright side to help her through. I also really liked the play’s use of Harry Potter and how Maggie’s relationship with the books changes throughout the play. We all know Harry Potter and I think its inclusion helps to further root the play in a recognisable world. Really inspiring work!
Maggie May plays at Curve, Leicester until 11th June. All performances are dementia friendly. For further information, please visit https://www.curveonline.co.uk/whats-on/shows/maggie-may-2/
The Dementia Friendly performance of Billy Elliot at Curve is scheduled for 11th August, 2.15pm and of The Wizard of Oz is on 4th January 2023, 2.15pm.
|Tony Timberlake and Eithne Browne in Maggie May. Credit: Zoe Martin|