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Maggie May at Leeds Playhouse – review

A moving study of the impact of dementia

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The cast of Maggie May
© Zoe Martin

Maggie May is a study in dementia, but by no means as depressing as that sounds. For one thing, it has been produced in association with Every Third Minute, a Leeds-based festival curated by people with dementia. The production, in association with Curve and Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch, was scheduled for 2020, but was sabotaged by Covid. Now Frances Poet's play emerges at Leeds Playhouse's Courtyard Theatre in a production that is dementia-friendly in many different ways.

Maggie, 67 years old, has spent 50 years with Gordon and the initial shock of the play is when he suffers a stroke, but that is not the major problem. He recovers as she sinks into dementia. The opening scenes (as the closing scenes) take place on their son Michael's birthday. First with her friend Jo, then with Michael and his new girlfriend Claire, Maggie faces the problem of admitting her difficulties which become more obvious as she regularly calls Claire "Emily" and distresses her by forgetting that her mother died of cancer.

When she tells them the truth, Michael's reaction makes it obvious why she tried to keep it from him; it comes as no surprise when the next time Claire appears, it's as a solo. Meanwhile Claire has introduced another element, figures from the Harry Potter books, the Dementors and the Pensieve, both of which play a key role in Maggie's dealing with her illness. So the progress goes through her hospitalisation and the improvement brought about by her meetings with other people like her.

Jemima Levick's production is fully dementia-friendly, the use of songs from the 70s a prompt to remembering, scenes played statically, projections indicating Maggie's state of mind. Most of this is perfectly comprehensible to the non-dementia audience, but for a total non-Potterite the references to J.K. Rowling's wizard produce a mental blank.

Francis O'Connor's designs and Chris Davey's lighting emphasise the story with admirable clarity, chairs and beds trucked in to an almost empty stage, self-reminder notes by the dozen above the stage, lights suggesting shifts from naturalism to Maggie's private thoughts with great clarity.

Performances tend to illuminate the character of Maggie. Tony Timberlake (Gordon) seems in remarkably good dancing form for one recovering from a stroke, but manages a totally sympathetic performance. Likewise the jolly Maxine Finch (Jo) with her latest gag. Mark Holgate (Michael) cuts a rather less appealing figure, slow to understand, quick to respond angrily, with Shireen Farkhoy (Claire) a delightful contrast, maybe not quite sure what is going on, but striking a sympathetic relationship with Maggie.

And that just leaves Eithne Browne's remarkable performance as Maggie. Much of the time relatively subdued, she comes into her own in her monologues, explodes into fury from time to time and establishes an individual character when the fog lifts. It's the eyes that do it, dead in the grip of dementia, almost merrily alive when operating the Pensieve.