Maggie May review – Lionel Bart's musical knows how to show you a good time

Finborough, London
Bart and Alun Owen’s 1964 musical about a Liverpudlian dockside prostitute and her sailor beau gets a foot-stamping first professional revival

The working-class British musical sounds like a contradiction in terms. It did once exist, however, and this show, with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart and a book by Alun Owen, was a popular example of the genre. Revived professionally for the first time since 1964, it inevitably seems a period piece but it survives through the vim and vigour of Matthew Iliffe’s production.

It would be easy to poke fun at the show’s romanticism. Pat Casey, son of a socialist martyr, returns to Liverpool from a life at sea to find that his old flame, Maggie May, has become a dockside doxy. Their passion is rekindled but Casey puts it on hold to lead his fellow dockers in a strike and then sabotage a cargo of guns intended for a foreign oppressor. The show is palpably enthralled by its hero – always referred to by his surname – and Maggie, who at one point hymns “a pair of slippers by the fireside”, comes perilously close to the cliche of the tart with a heart.

A scene from Maggie May
The world of men … Maggie May at the Finborough theatre, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Bart and Owen seem happiest dealing with a world of men. There are invigorating foot-stamping male choruses, excellently choreographed by Sam Spencer-Lane, and even, surprisingly for the time, a number acknowledging that not all dockers are robustly hetero. Kara Lily Hayworth as the eponymous heroine and James Darch as her mythologised beau are strong enough to overcome the show’s dated gender politics, and there is lively support from Mark Pearce as a corrupt union boss and David Keller as a gnarled veteran. If you don’t go expecting to learn much about the life of a Merseyside sex-worker, you will have a perfectly good time.

• At Finborough theatre, London, until 20 April.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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