Finborough Theatre, London – until 20th April 2019
Reviewed by Antonia Hebbert
No, this is not an evening of Rod Stewart. Stay with me, all the same, because this is a spellbinding show. The name comes from an old sea-song about a Liverpool prostitute who cheats a sailor. (Liverpool and cheating women are always popping up in old sea-songs.) In this retelling by Lionel Bart and Alun Owen (directed by Michael Iliffe), Maggie is a prostitute with a heart of gold, and has fallen in love again with her childhood sweetheart. He’s been round the world and come back with principles, so when he gets a job in the docks, he soon leads a walkout over a dodgy shipment of guns.
It’s a celebration of Liverpool, the docks and tough dockyard people, written just as the city was about to storm the world with the Mersey sound (and go into bitter industrial decline). It premiered at the Adelphi in 1964, with Barry Humphries among others in the original cast. The tiny Finborough Theatre might seem an odd space for a musical revival about a big city, workers’ rights, and the conflicts of love, beliefs and the need for wages. But the intensity of song and dance in the small space works a treat.
Lionel Bart’s songs are a real hotchpotch, and for me had an honesty that’s missing from typical musical belt-out numbers (naming no names, Andrew Lloyd Webber). Ballads, folk, rock and roll and sea shanties rub shoulders with stomping group numbers, all beautifully sung whether in tender solos or group harmonies, with musical director Henry Brennan at the piano. The dancing is a delight, ranging from a very intense tango-ish encounter of prostitutes and dockyard workers through lovely jive to a surprising comic number towards the end, involving a three-way swap of hats, shoes and coats (choreography by Sam Spencer Lane). Verity Johnson’s set is exceedingly basic, involving boxes, steps and some ropes, but it works – you feel that you are there in that pub or dockyard.
Kara Lily Hayworth is an adorable Maggie, both steely-tough and vulnerable. Natalie Williams is nicely brassy as her co-worker Maureen. James Darch is suitably noble as Maggie’s sweetheart Patrick Casey, and Mark Pearce is a commandingly villainous Willie Morgan, the local fixer and wheeler-dealer. All the ensemble were convincing characters: a couple of other standouts were David Keller as Dooley, the old-school docker who is well past his best; and Michael Nelson as the fiery Judder Johnson (and terrific dancer – how do knees do that?)